“You must pay for everything in this world one way and another.
There is nothing free with the exception of God’s grace.”
Charles Portis, True Grit
The Coen Brothers--whose works Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou?, and No Country for Old Men, among many others, are cinematic touchstones for many--are famously reticent about Big Themes in their movies. Cinematographer Barry Sonnefeld once told a film critic this about the Brothers: “Topics are incredibly unimportant to them—it’s structure and style and words. If you ask them for their priorities, they’ll tell you script, editing, coverage, and lighting.” And I believe it--their recent films are beautiful, the camera always in the right place, the shot always held the right amount of time, the lighting perfect, the music the perfect accompaniment.
But I also know Cathleen Falsani wrote a good book on the spirituality of their films, The Dude Abides, and I myself have often talked and written about even the challenging films like No Country for Old Men.
And now comes True Grit, which I think is truly a great movie, and one that seems to Mean a lot of things. And now, again, the Coen Brothers argue, even in an interview with Relevant, a Christian magazine hoping they'll admit to some spiritual purpose, that they don't see the spiritual content, or if it's there, it's there because it was in the original novel.
In The Gospel according to Hollywood, I talked about my love for Pulp Fiction, a strange film to champion as a powerful religious experience, and when I talk to audiences, I have to admit that I don't know anything about Quentin Tarantino's personal faith.
And I also tell them that it doesn't matter.
When you make a film about grace and redemption, you have made a film about grace and redemption.
Likewise, the Coens can deny from here to Sunday their desire to make a film with spiritual or even religious meaning.
They can say it's all in the source material, and they were just interested in the sunsets and the landscape. And some of the Big Ideas are in the source novel: Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) "falls" when she takes vengeance into her own hands, and discovers that a serpent can reside within the human breast.
Just as, in Pulp Fiction, Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) talks about God getting involved, I felt God get involved in True Grit. God and God-talk are, in fact, everywhere, from the opening voice-over quoted above to the powerful sense of fallenness (as we suggested last week, the Fall is a potent idea, and one does not have to be a Neo-Calvinist to note that), from the dramatic sense of redemption observable in the film when people live up to their God-given potential, when they risk their lives in service to others, when people behave better than we think possible, to the spare Carter Burwell score that relies almost entirely on the 1887 hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms."
Now I imagine some conservative Christians might react to True Grit the way this self-identified "Christian bowler" did to The Big Lebowski: "I was so disapointed that this movie would take a clean Christian sport like bowling and pervert with the drugs and sex and profanity. I would urge other Christian bowlers to stay away from 'The Big Lebowski.'"
True Grit is not an easy film, or a film that encourages a closing-credits altar call.
But this Christian felt like he got religion.
What are some of the hard films or stories where you felt God got involved? Why?
Additional Resources from www.TheThoughtfulChristian.com
- Breaking the Fall: Religious Reading of Contemporary Fiction, by Robert Detweiler
- Imagining Redemption, by David H. Kelsey
- "Atonement," by Vince Patton
- "X-Files 2: I Want to Believe," by Vince Patton