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February 29th, 2012 @ 6:44 am by Kevin
Right now I’m doing my annual volunteer teaching stint at the Woodcrest School of Writing just outside of Tyler, TX. (Don’t worry: I’m teaching by day and editing Hellbound? by night!)
Each year I like to use a different film as a shared viewing experience that we can focus on throughout the week. This year it’s the Coen brothers’ version of True Grit, the story of a 14-year-old girl who hires a US Marshall to help her hunt down the man who killed her father.
When I first heard the Coens were doing a Western, I was excited, because I assumed they were either going to reinvent the genre or totally subvert. However, upon first viewing it, I was disappointed to discover they had done neither. Instead, they told a pretty straight-up tale of revenge. It was beautifully shot and well-acted, but the overall story left me feeling kind of cold.
I didn’t really think about it again until 8 months later when I was teaching in another film school (just outside of London, England this time). I got into a friendly argument with one of my students, who was a big fan of the film. He urged me to give it a second chance. Wouldn’t you know it, on the flight home, I flipped through the films available on the plane and saw that True Grit was among them. So I decided to give it another shot.
I’m not sure if it was the recycled cabin air, the extra wine I had with my meal or the occasional bout of turbulence, but this time I had a completely different viewing experience. In truth, I think that once my expectations had been tuned appropriately, I could begin to appreciate the film for what it was rather than what I thought it should be.
And yet, after watching it a third time tonight, I realize I was wrong once again. I knew there was no way the Coen brothers would simply tell a good Western story and leave it at that. There had to be something else going on beneath the surface. As I reflected on the film tonight, I think I finally realized what it is. And guess what? It has something to do with hell…
Throughout this film, two things appear to be at war: justice and grace. (Sound familiar?) As Mattie (lead character) says during the prologue, “You must pay for everything in this world one way and another. There is nothing free, except the grace of God.” The question is, which one will win?
A hint at how this is resolved is how Mattie winds up at the end of the film.
She’s missing one of her arms. Now think about her theme song in the film: “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms of Jesus.” See a connection?
Picture the arms of Jesus. Imagine that on one arm is written the word “justice” and on the other, “grace.”
Now imagine the same words are written on Mattie’s arms. Only at the end of the film, she’s missing one of them. And it’s the result of a FALL, where she descends into the ABYSS and is bitten by a SNAKE.
Is it getting clearer now?
Mattie gets her man in the end, but she pays a terrible price. I believe the Coens are saying she loses not only her arm but her childhood and her future, because we don’t see her again until she’s 40 years old. She’s a tough old maid dressed in black who has never really moved on from the events of that day. Now she merely tends the graves of those who’ve gone and wonders what might have been. She never learned how to receive grace, so she never learned how to give it either. As a result, our final image of Mattie is that of a diminishing shadow slowly being swallowed up by the landscape.
On one level, it may seem like the Coens are arguing that grace and justice simply can’t co-exist. If we’re going to have one, we’ll have to lose the other, just as Mattie lost one of her arms. But is that really true?
I don’t think so, because throughout the film, Mattie isn’t really seeking justice. She’s seeking revenge. In fact, most people in the film seem to be confused about justice. For the townspeople who travel to witness a hanging at the beginning of the film, justice is about satisfaction. For the local sheriff, justice is simply an argument about jurisdictions and priorities. For Rooster Cogburn–the ranger Mattie hires to catch her father’s killer–justice is nothing but a commercial transaction. Either that or a preemptive strike against evil, a form of self-preservation.
The only person who seems like he might have a clue is LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger who joins Mattie and Cogburn on their manhunt. At one point he notes that even though some things are allowed by law, they may still violate a moral code. Mattie is aware of this principle as well, but she chooses to ignore it.
So the moral of the story appears to be that if we pursue a false notion of justice, we’re going to pay dearly for it. But it goes deeper than that. I think the film is actually arguing that if we’re to have any hope of avoiding Mattie’s fate, we’ll have to find a way to make justice and grace work together.
Seeing as we’re all pretty clear on what grace is–unmerited favor–that means we’ll have to redefine our notion of justice so it is no longer at war with this principle.
Otherwise we may find ourselves in the awkward position of wanting to cut off one of Jesus’ arms as well.
In the film, Mattie is convinced the only way to display true grit is to complete her quest to bring Chaney (her father’s killer) to “justice.” I think the opposite is true. When victimized by evil, relinquishing our desire for revenge and satisfaction is what really requires true grit.
The question is, do any of us have it?