“The wicked flee when none pursueth.” (Proverbs 28:1).
In the original novel by Charles Portis, the verse is quoted by Mattie Ross, the girl-heroine, in her dry narrator’s voice explaining the flight of Tom Cheney, the man who killed her father. Mattie is the revelation of this film, in every sense. She’s 14 years old at the time of the events, but the entire story is being narrated by her much older self (a classic Western motif). Mattie poises her unyielding Calvinist Presbyterian faith, her Sunday school answers, against the brutality, the strangeness, and the randomness of the Wild West. She is the gunslinger of Morality.
Death stalks her world. From the opening scene where her father’s corpse lies in the falling snow (or is it ash?), to the final scene beside a grave. From the three men hung in Fort Smith, to an ancient skeleton filled with rattlers. There is a dark-lining to the world, a world that itself becomes steadily more spectral as her journey leads her over the border of the settled lands (a river, of course) and into the Territories. The bare trees and snow. A final desperate, mortal, gallop where the world has faded to silver and stars.
The triple hanging at the start is instructive, the three men step forward to give an account of their lives, one repentant, one not, one silenced before speaking. Death comes to all simultaneously while the sheriff sits and looks bored.
But Mattie’s belief and her quest appear to triumph against this. She is harder than stone, a truth only emphasised by her disquieting and occasional lapses into childishness. If No Country for Old Men was driven by Anton Chigurh’s unstoppable brutality, then this film is driven by Mattie Ross’ unbending sense of righteousness. She transforms a mean drunk and a vain Texan into her champions, and she cajoles, hounds, rides them forward. Eventually they become heroes. But the film doesn’t end.
Guns have recoil. And so does this story. A one-armed loveless spinster, side-show freaks, narrowly missed connections. A world moved on and indifferent.
“You must pay for everything in this world one way and another. There is nothing free with the exception of God’s grace.”
Another piece of ambiguous wisdom from Mattie Ross, a leaning juxtaposition of necessity and… what? What is God’s grace, in this world of brutal vengeance and hard justice? LaBeouf makes the shot, Rooster Cogburn makes the shack, but everyone pays for it one way or another. This can’t be grace then. Certainly Mattie wouldn’t have said so.
What is grace, strict Calvinist, other than the final unshackling of morality from necessity? The spectre that has ever haunted Augustinian thought, that in the final judgement, grace might be indistinguishable from randomness, the final undoing of morality.
You don’t have to read True Grit that way, but you can. And the possibility is intended. And if you do, True Grit is the end of the West.