True Grit, the new Western from the Coen Brothers, opens with a quote from the Book of Proverbs: “The wicked flee when none pursueth.” And while there is plenty of wickedness in this new adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel, and plenty of fleeing as well, it’s actually the line spoken only seconds later by the film’s heroine, Mattie Ross (Hallee Steinfeld), that captures the essence of this movie: “You must pay for everything in this world.”
Ever since their first film, Blood Simple, Joel and Ethan Coen have been telling stories about people making small attempts to improve their lives and instead ending up with misery, violence and calamity. Think of Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo, the schlemiel just trying to get ahead who ends up ruining his family instead. Or poor Barton Fink, who asked a sociopath in the room next door to keep the noise down while he worked. Or Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man, who didn’t really do anything to incur the wrath of God.
Make a move in the Coen Brothers’ world and the universe crumbles around you. It’s a philosophy that fits perfectly with True Grit, a book steeped in Protestant moral rigor and fatalism, where there is right and there is wrong but neither leads to anything approaching happiness. Into this cold and unforgiving wilderness steps Ross, a stern 14-year-old frontier girl seeking vengeance for her father, who was murdered by Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). With all the moral assuredness of the young and all the self-righteousness of the faithful, Ross recruits a dissolute, drunken and debauched one-eyed marshal named Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to help her track down Chaney and bring him to justice. Or shoot him between the eyes. Problem is, in her quest for a biblical reckoning, Ross forgets her Bible lessons, particularly the part about vengeance being God’s alone. So, this being a Coen Brothers film, her plan unravels and wreaks unforeseen havoc on those around her and, eventually, her as well.
True Grit is the Coens’ most straightforward film. Gone is the ironic distance, replaced by a newfound sense of ethical and aesthetic traditionalism. Good guys redeem themselves through noble and selfless acts set to sweeping violin music; bad guys die in lonely faraway places, unmourned and whiskey-soaked. But in the end, even the Coen Brothers’ first foray into Hollywood sentimentality and honest emotion can’t save their heroes and heroine from that one unshakeable truth: You must pay for everything in this world. Some pay in limbs, some pay in blood, some pay in innocence, and all die alone.