Try as they might, the Coen brothers can’t quite reconcile with the New Testament.
“True Grit,” their latest film and a recently announced nominee for the Best Picture Oscar, is one of their most Christianity-flecked works. Yet despite its open talk of grace and reverent use of the 1880s gospel hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” this is a movie devoid of redemption and rebirth. It’s deeply moral, to be sure, but that’s Old Testament stuff.
You can sense this hesitancy – this suspicion of grace – in almost all of Joel and Ethan Coen’s collaborations. When they aren’t nihilistic (“Blood Simple,” “No Country for Old Men,” “Burn After Reading”), the brothers’ movies issue harsh and lethal judgments (“Miller’s Crossing,” “Barton Fink,” “A Serious Man). True, each of these films flirts with grace – think of John Turturro’s Bernie pleading for his life, which is granted, in “Miller’s Crossing.” But the Coens’ version of grace rarely lasts. (Remember what happens to Bernie?) Time and again, the Coen brothers tiptoe toward the idea of restoration, then violently turn away. What’s holding them back?
Fear, perhaps. Believing in grace makes you vulnerable – vulnerable to disappointment when it doesn’t arrive as you expected, vulnerable to scorn when the skeptics weigh in. And in the Coens’ universe, the vulnerable are eaten alive.
Consider “True Grit,” in which a 14-year-old girl (Hailee Steinfeld) accompanies a grizzled U.S. marshal (Jeff Bridges) on a journey to avenge the man who killed her father. You would think the girl would be defenseless among these harsh lawmen and unscrupulous outlaws, but she’s the most ruthless figure in the film. She may be morally sincere – that’s why some critics, including Coen specialist Cathleen Falsani, have seen her as a redemptive figure – but her fixation on retribution brings about nothing but pain and death (even, in what is perhaps the movie’s most agonizing scene, to her horse).
Notice, in particular, how the Coens frame young Mattie’s moment of “triumph” (spoiler alert). When she shoots her father’s killer, the kickback from the gun sends her tumbling into a snake pit. She eventually escapes but is left - like so many retribution seekers in the movie - severely maimed. At the picture’s end, nearly every major character has been, as Matt Damon’s Texas Ranger puts it, “considerably diminished.”
And so we’re left where the Coens usually leave us: thoroughly entertained, yet also disturbed by the bleakness of a world with nothing but harsh morality propping it up. Grace notes in a Coen brothers’ film, be they the humming of a gospel hymn or the quoting of Scripture, are so far simply that – brief, tentative dollops. These vital, brilliant filmmakers seem intensely curious about grace, but their movies are unable to commit to it. The New Testament just isn’t their forte.
Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.