"True Grit" and Paul's Letter to the Romans

This reflection on "True Grit" contains a multitude of spoilers.

"True Grit" is a biblical movie, from the beginning to the end, not just in terms of biblical citations and hymns which mine the biblical landscape, but in terms of characterization, themes, tone and feel. The Coen brothers’ film is far more connected to the biblical themes which undergird this story than was the original film version made in 1969 with John Wayne. The original film played off Rooster Cogburn as hero; there are no human heroes in the Coen brothers’ version, just pilgrims stumbling towards the Promised Land. The biblical text that kept coming to mind for me during the movie and after was Paul’s Letter to the Romans. I am not suggesting the Coen brothers or the novel’s author had Romans in mind particularly, since Romans is never cited in the movie and I have not read the novel on which both versions of this film have been based, but Romans simply manifests all of the most powerful biblical themes that run throughout this movie. Certainly, the religious tenor of the Coen brothers’ version of the film have been noted by many, Stanley Fish and Steven D. Greydanus have particularly powerful readings of the film, and both note many of the biblical references, but the narrative itself is so harsh, spare and yet humane – not all would agree with the characterization of this film as humane - that it bears the marks of the spartan tenor of biblical literature itself. Whether it fits best in the literary genre of epistle, I do not know, for perhaps parable, proverb, wisdom literature or even historical narrative do it more justice, but biblical it is.


The movie itself begins with a passage from Proverbs 28:1: “The wicked flee when no man pursueth : but the righteous are bold as a lion” (KJV). At least it begins with the first half of this aphorism; the second half of the proverb is missing but implied throughout the movie. There is a difference between the wicked and the righteous, which is at the heart of Paul’s letter to the Romans, but there is nothing which sets the wicked apart from the righteous except their dependence on God. Crusty Rooster Cogburn, the coward Tom Chaney and the scoundrel Ned Pepper have more in common than that sets them apart. They are much alike for they are human, wounded and scarred.  All of them share in the reality of sin, which ultimately includes the most morally upright characters in the film, LaBoeuf and Mattie Ross. But there is something distinct that sets Cogburn, LaBoeuf and Ross apart from the criminals and it is not sinlessness or guiltlessness, but the desire to do the right thing, to follow justice, and the sure knowledge that the wrong thing, evil, carries consequences. The wicked flee in this movie because they think they can outrun the consequences of their actions, but they will pay, either in this world or the world to come (or perhaps even in both). Romans gets to the heart of this reality, both in terms of the shared humanity and the common answer to sin: “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (3:22-24).

Grace is at the heart of this movie, as it is at the heart of Romans. Mattie says in the movie’s opening, “No doubt Chaney fancied himself scot-free, but he was wrong. You must pay for everything in this life, one way and another. There is nothing free, except the grace of God.”If not for this grace, what would bring redemption? Mattie might seem to apply this sense of “payment” only to her enemy, but I think she is aware of her own foibles and her own need to “pay” for her sins. She is aware that no more than Tom Chaney can she meet the price. Paul says that “the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man's trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man's sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification” (Romans 5:16-17). Grace, a gift, is what Mattie needs as much as Tom Chaney.

The movie distinguishes between malum prohibitem and malum in se, things that are evil in themselves and things that are evil basically by convention, the law of a particular time or place. One of the realities that Paul speaks of is the fact that everyone has access to the law by nature – in Romans 2: 14-16, Paul writes that “when Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.” This law would include knowledge of those things which are malum in se, the truth regarding those things that should never be done. Each of the characters in this movie, whether on the right side of the malum prohibitem or not, skirt with the truth in their lives at the level of the malum in se.  Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross act out of vengeance or even convenience to satisfy their own human desire for justice. Each of the characters knows the truth, even if the wicked cannot defend their behavior or actions and so run from the law of human justice, and each will be accountable at an eternal level for their behavior. Paul gets to the core of this eternal reckoning, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

This is not to say that Tom Chaney has not done an evil act, and that the law of the state should not be enacted. In Romans 13, Paul argues for the authority of human justice, however flawed it might and must be, when carried out by a proper authority. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God's servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:1-4). Even if Rooster Cogburn is excessively enthusiastic about carrying out his duties as an agent of the government, as he is perhaps in the mountain cabin and as he relates when questioned in court about his many killings, he does have a right to exercise the authority of the state when acting as a sheriff. Does Mattie Ross have such a right?

In Romans 12, Paul has a powerful passage, which includes a verse from Proverbs 25:21 and one from Deuteronomy 32:35, in which he argues that a Christian ought to forego vengeance. “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." No, "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:17-21).  Mattie Ross, confronted with the killer of her father, the whining, simpering Tom Chaney, could not await God’s justice, could not even await the justice of the state; she needed vengeance.

And she, too, received her own recompense – the meaning of the word “repay” in Romans 12:17 – when she fell backwards into a snake pit. The snake, so long a metaphor for evil, drills its poison into Mattie’s hand, the physical manifestation of her own sin. Paul, too, sees sin as a poison working its way through humanity. In Romans 7, sin takes on concrete form: “But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:17-25). Mattie is rescued at the physical level by Rooster, who attempts to suck all of the poison from her body, but is unable to save her from the effects of her sin. The poison leaves its mark. Yet, it also creates the most poignant scene in the whole movie, where the grizzled veteran, scarred by his own sins, attempts to save Mattie from its very effects. It is too late, not to save her human life, but to save it free from the wounds of sin. Only grace can heal her completely, but her arm, amputated below the elbow, shows that we must all pay for our own sins. There is no person who can free us completely from our own folly, even when that person is noble and heroic in bringing us to help.  

This is why the final hymn, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” becomes so poignant. As Mattie walks away with her arm cut off, she bears the scars and wounds literally of her own stubbornness and sin, all these many years later. She, indeed, is a powerful character, the heroine really of the movie, for her grit, determination and faithfulness, but no less than Cogburn, Chaney or Pepper her salvation rests not in her own hands, but in the everlasting arms of the one who offers grace. This is the case whatever side of the law these men and women were in this world, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14).

John W. Martens

 Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens


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