Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Western Isn't Dead

True Grit

“The banjo takes me back, through the foggy haze,
With memories of what never was, become the good old days.”

The line above is taken from a country-western song by Steve Martin, “Daddy Played the Banjo” and I think it summarizes nicely the appeal of the Western genre. We might know that the world of cowboys and gunslingers, saloons and Main Street at high noon is mythical, but we still like to think of it as our history and heritage.
The new version of True Grit puts on some pretense of being more “authentic” by keeping much of the language of Charles Portis’ classic novel, acknowledging the racism of the time period and featuring grim living conditions. But it’s really a Western, an adventure story as real as tales of Camelot or Narnia. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
There is something about a good adventure story that stirs the spirit, that makes us think that we weren’t made to live ordinary lives but are meant to accomplish great things. It’s even better when the hero of the story is young. Treasure Island endures as a classic tale partly because it’s a young boy, Jim Hawkins, that enters the murderous world of pirates.
I think Portis created an even better protagonist with Mattie Ross, a 14 year old girl with intelligence, orneriness and, yes, True Grit (tenacious courage.) When her father is murdered and no adult seems interested in bringing the killer to justice, she takes on the task herself.
One of the things I love about the character is her Christian faith, which seems to tend toward the Pharisaical. She is quick to judge others. She considers the man her father traded horses with to be a crook. She is quick to assess the federal marshal she hires to track her father’s killer as a lazy drunk. And of course, there’s the condemnation she wishes to heap on that killer, Tom Chaney.
Though a judgmental nature is always an ugly thing, like many fashions it hangs a little better on the young. Mattie, like most teens, is an idealist who expects more from people than they are able to deliver. Older people should know better. (Jesus captured this judgmental spirit well in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18: 9 – 14.)
But Mattie is smart enough to know she can’t take on Chaney and his gang of outlaws alone. So she joins up with Rooster, whom she considers a sinner, and Texas Ranger LeBoeuf, whom she considers a dandy. The three go together into the wilderness and face great dangers from both villains and nature.
Trials bring these three people together into a bond of respect and love.
Mattie’s cause is not of the noblest kind. She seeks revenge. (She should have been looking to Romans 12:19.) But I think there is lesson here for Christ’s church: when we have a common goal and vision and seek it together, Christ will bond us together, and we can overcome our petty differences.
The film opens with a quotation from Proverbs 28: 1, “The wicked flee when no man pursueth.” Strangely, the second half of the verse was omitted, “but the righteous are bold as a lion.” One of the joys of a good adventure is the spending time with good, brave people. True Grit, with wonderful performances by Jeff Bridges (in the role that won John Wayne an Oscar), Matt Damon and especially newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie.
It’s a great adventure, but God has bigger adventures in store for you.

By my figuring, this puts the Coen Brothers (Ethan and Joel)film record at 13 for 15, which is very, very, impressive.

(True Grit is PG-13 for language and violence.)

1 comment:

sailhamer said...

Dean...Your review is very perceptive. (BTW, have you read Roger Ebert's latest comments on the high quality of independent movie reviewers on the net all over the world?)
As you know I looked up 28:1 and felt the second half of the verse, the opposite paralleism was also very key to the story.
I read several reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and took issue with them as I will with you on one point: this is not a revenge movie on Mattie's part. She wants justice, not revenge. She wants the killer brought to trial and punished...executed by law.
This is important because of the recent wave of revenge movies coming out of Hollywood starting with The Gladiator. As our culture continues to drift from biblical moorings, revenge is becoming the cheap substitute for law and/or grace.
Speaking of grace, what about the great line in the film regarding God's grace. My theory of movie review is to look for a moment of grace in a great story. Every great story has one or drastically lacks one. Any ideas for this film?