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Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Kickback of Grace: The Coen Brothers' True Grit

“She would have been a good woman,” said The Misfit, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Those who have had the privilege of reading Flannery O’Connor’s short story masterpiece, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” will recognize this as one of the last lines of the story, spoken by a mass murderer who goes by the name, The Misfit. The Misfit has just wiped out an entire family, a mother, father, two children, a baby, and finally, a silly, querulous old woman called in the story, simply, the grandmother.

At the story’s climax, the rest of the family dead, the grandmother begs The Misfit to spare her life. She urges him to pray. They begin to discuss Christ’s Resurrection. Christ’s rising from the dead, The Misfit says, “thown” everything off balance. He knows this much. What he can’t do is bring himself to believe it. But if he did believe it, he admits, he wouldn’t be this way.
Moved by this admission, the grandmother cries:
"Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!"
She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. Then he put his gun down on the ground and took off his glasses and began to clean them.
Hiram and Bobby Lee returned from the woods and stood over the ditch, looking down at the grandmother who half sat and half lay in a puddle of blood with her legs crossed under her like a child's and her face smiling up at the cloudless sky.
There’s a similar moment of violence and grace at the end of True Grit, the Coen brothers’ recent adaptation of the 1968 Charles Portis novel of the same name. The climax of True Grit is also reached by the pulling of a trigger. The gun is fired by a fourteen year-old girl named Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), who along with U.S. Marshall Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and Texas Ranger, Leboeuf (Matt Damon), has been hunting down a murderer named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who killed Mattie’s father in a drunken spree. It may seem that the situation is the opposite of that in O’Connor’s story. For in True Grit, instead of a mass murderer wiping out an entire family, we have an innocent child meting out justice to a murderer. But closer inspection reveals a deeper similarity between the two stories, founded principally in the fact that Mattie is a “misfit” of her own. How so?
As Father Robert Barron has pointed out in his insightful analysis of the film, Mattie is driven by a single-minded desire for justice. The film opens with a quotation, white letters over black, from Proverbs 28:1: “The wicked man flees, when none pursueth.” The verse continues: “but the just, bold as a lion, shall be without dread.” Mattie is the lion who pursues Tom Chaney without dread. At the beginning, when she asks a sheriff for advice on where to find a man with “true grit” to help her pursue Chaney, the sheriff offers several possibilities…

The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double tough and fear don't enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork. The best is probably L.T. Quinn, he brings his prisoners in alive. He may let one get by now and again but he believes even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake. Quinn is a good peace officer and a lay preacher to boot. He will not plant evidence or abuse a prisoner. He is as straight as string. Yes, I will say Quinn is about the best they have.                                                                 
Where can I find this Rooster?  

Mattie opts for the “pitiless man,” not the man “straight as a string” who “believes even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake.” Mattie’s sense of justice is that of an eye for an eye. It is the justice of the Furies in Aeschylus’ The Eumenides. It is a justice driven more by blood-thirst than by respect for an impersonal order. Mattie’s father was killed, Chaney must die, and no pity or legal niceties must enter into it.

But as Father Barron points out, Mattie’s sense of justice leads to a string of brutal killings. Between Mattie, Cogburn and Leboeuf, eight corpses are on the ground by the time Mattie completes her quest. That is not to say that these killings are unjust—not, at least, in the moral territory in which these characters move. But the film has something to say about this brand of justice.

In the climactic scene, Mattie finally faces Chaney armed with LeBoeuf’s rifle. The theme of the force of a gun’s “kickback” has been set-up throughout the film. When Mattie blows Chaney away, the carbine recoil kicks her back so hard she is thrown into a pit. Her feet are caught in brambles, and she discovers herself near a corpse in which burrow several snakes. Before Cogburn can come and save her, she is bit on the hand by one of the poisonous snakes.

Cogburn cuts her hand and tries to suck out the poison. Then he takes Mattie on horseback to a doctor, many miles away. Cogburn runs the horse ragged until it collapses and he has to shoot it. He then carries Mattie the rest of the way, showing us, as Father Barron observes, that he is now moved by something other than cruel justice. He is moved by pity and affection for Mattie.

A dark pit…a corpse…snakes. Father Barron is right that these images of Mattie’s “kickback” are Christian in their resonance. Mattie’s desire for a very severe form of justice leads her into the very “valley of death” that she tells her mother, in a letter, the Lord will lead her through.

True Grit’s structure takes the form of an envelope. We begin with a voiceover narrated by Mattie in 1908, twenty-five years after her pursuit of Chaney with Cogburn and LeBoeuf. At the end of the film, we again hear the older Mattie, and see her too, and learn that she has only one arm, the other cut off, in order to save her life, by the doctor Cogburn brought her to. As Father Barron astutely perceives, Mattie’s one arm images the lack of symmetry in the justice that drove her to pursue Tom Chaney. A justice without mercy, that disregards the claims of even the worst of men to a fair shake, is not the justice God intends for human beings. It is a justice, rather, for “misfits.”

The film closes beautifully with images of mercy: in Cogburn’s transformative act of devotion in getting Mattie to the doctor; but also in the lovely spiritual with which the film ends, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” a song in which Mattie’s single armed justice is perfectly balanced by the two loving arms of the Father.

Flannery O’Connor professed to write about the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil. About the ending of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” she wrote:

I suppose the reasons for the use of so much violence in modern fiction will differ with each writer who uses it, but in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.

O’Connor didn’t choose simply to equate The Misfit with the devil. She preferred to think that the grandmother’s final gesture, in which she calls him one of her own children and touches him with love and pity, “like the mustard-seed, will grow to a great crow-filled tree in the Misfit’s heart, and will be enough of a pain to him there to turn him into the prophet he was meant to become.”

The firing of a gun plants the mustard seed of grace in the misfit Mattie, too. Her recoil from the shot is the beginning of a costly but necessary return to the reality of what true justice requires. “She would have been a good woman,” says The Misfit, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Much like O’Connor in her fiction, the Coen brothers in True Grit have used dark comedy, violence, and a stark refusal of sentimentality to picture a territory held largely by the devil, but one still capable of surprising its inhabitants with the kickback of grace.   


  1. What a pleasant surprise to know you follow Fr. Robert Barron. I discovered him through a mutual friend, Fr. Bill Blazek, SJ. He (Fr Barron) is a truly gifted homilist.

    I've not yet seen the new True Grit. As a devote fan of both "The Duke" and the Coen Brothers, I'm a little torn - but I know I have to watch it.

  2. The good news, Tim, is that you don't really have to choose between the two versions. The Duke's version is a great movie, not least for the presence of The Duke, but the Coen brothers' version is different in being a more committed adaptation of the original source material in the novel. Speaking of virtues, Father Barron has many of them, not least those of a perceptive film critic.

  3. Daniel,

    Excellent post and analysis. I'll link to it from my