Dr King Schultz is a fine incarnation of acting, character and screenwriting and his story challenges our attitude towards the law, morality and compassion.
In Part 2, we examined Mattie’s plunge into a place of death, and how through perseverance, Cogburn rescues her, a picture of what Jesus does at the cross. We find don’t find out what happens next – we find out what happens a quarter century later, because this event has so defined Mattie’s life.
The first thing we observe is that Mattie bears the scars of that cold winter everywhere she goes. I still have both my arms but I can imagine that when you lose an arm, life will change. Many things may have mellowed Mattie over the years – it’s hard to know with a 25 year jump cut – but maybe something of her zest was lost in that pit too. Certainly, the loss of her arm is part of what she means by “Everything in this life must be paid for,”; this is how she pays for killing Cheney.
In Part 1, we saw that Mattie’s sense of justice was based on an Old Testament ethic, and even Cogburn sees his guns as delivering ‘wrath’. Yet, as a Christian, her quest is inconsistent with the teaching that vengeance is God’s domain – because in all sins, God is first and foremost the most offended party. Rather, Jesus says:
35 …love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:35-36)
See what God is like? He is kind to the ungrateful and wicked! We sinners deserve judgement, but instead of taking revenge, God is merciful. Jesus dies for the sins we do so that we don’t have to (1 Peter 2:23-25). We do not earn God’s favour by doing good works but receive this gift of salvation by grace and through trusting Jesus.
Of course, the grace of God in no way eliminates the need for judicial punishment – the Apostle Paul teaches governments exist to punish wrongdoers (Romans 13)* but it does calls us to rethink our personal notions of justice, forgiving those who wrong us, as we have been forgiven. One might say “it is the old West”, but at the heart of Christian theology is forgiveness for those who deserve judgement.
As victorious as Mattie seemed in securing justice for her family in the death of Chaney, I wonder if in the end, whether retribution gives her what she wanted. In her delirium, she sees Chaney slipping away in the night, suggesting perhaps justice hasn’t been done. Perhaps retribution wasn’t the satisfying thing she thought it would be. Compare the victorious music when she has the drop on Chaney to the reflective epilogue. The story shifts dramatically from what Chaney means to Mattie, to who Cogburn is to Mattie.
Cogburn begins as somewhat of an outcast, an alcoholic sleeping in the back of a Chinese man’s store, whom La Boeuf dubbed as having ‘nothing to offer’. People gossip about Mattie when she arranges for Cogburn’s body to be moved to her family plot. When Mattie, in essence, adopts Cogburn into her family. She thanks him and welcomes him, only a quarter century late.
And even though she laments that time slips away from everybody, she has much for which to be thankful. Mattie can finally stand by a graveside and affirm from the beginning of her retelling that “There is nothing free except the grace of God”, because she has experienced it – in the troubles of her life, in regret perhaps, she’s leaning on the everlasting arms. As she remembers Cogburn, she’s reminded of the one who has carried her through, who in her deepest darkest night plunges into the depths of her despair to rescue her from pain through pain, suffering and perseverance. With true grit.
*In the shack, Mattie and LaBoeuf discuss the difference between malum in se (an act that is inherently wrong) and malum prohibitum (an act which is wrong because it is prohibited). The Gospel is concerned with rectifying malum in se by turning people back to worship God through Christ’s work on the cross.
In Part 1, we met Mattie, Cogburn and La Boeuf, and saw the prominence of faith in framing and enabling Mattie’s quest. For all the beauty of Mattie’s faith and innocence to this point, True Grit is ultimately about revenge, or is it justice? When Mattie pulls the trigger, the difference will not matter.
Mattie, perhaps in her naivety, does not care much for guns. In her desire for retribution however, she may wish she did, as she stumbles then tumbles headlong into the pit – a pit of despair and dread, helpless and alone, echoing the experiences of the writer of Psalm 88:
3 I am overwhelmed with troubles
and my life draws near to death.
4 I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am like one without strength.
5 I am set apart with the dead,
like the slain who lie in the grave,
whom you remember no more,
who are cut off from your care.
Death reigns in this pit, under the curse of snakes, and Mattie glimpses who she will become without a rescuer. In biblical imagery, the snake (or serpent) stands behind the original sin, which brings the curse of death on humanity. Mattie says earlier to Ned Pepper she has seen a lot of bad things, but in killing Chaney she is now an active participant.* Hence, Chaney’s shooting, Mattie’s plunge and being ‘bit’ together represent Mattie’s loss of innocence and symbolize the fall of humanity in Genesis 3.
But for Mattie, all is not lost – her rescuer is at hand! Cogburn calls after her and she cries back, and we can identify three key elements to Mattie’s rescue: a saviour, sacrifice and endurance. Cogburn, her saviour, descends from the light into darkness, with strength and (fire)power. Psalm 40 describes the salvation of God (from physical and spiritual turmoil) as a reaching down and lifting out:
1 I waited patiently for the Lord;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
2 He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
But for Mattie, Cogburn arrives seconds late, and she is bitten by the snake. Mounting her on the pony, they ride through the night – Mattie delirious under the curse of the snake – until Blackie is spent. Cogburn does the difficult thing and in a sense Blackie’s life is given for Mattie’s salvation. Now, it’s all down to Cogburn to carry Mattie on foot, through the cold winter’s night, out of the wilderness. She leans on his arms – she can do nothing else.
Mattie will be safe only because of Cogburn’s endurance, and only once he is sure of her salvation does he rest, after persevering through extraordinary hardship. Cogburn’s endurance is also his redemption – the one who has “nothing to offer”, gives everything, for the sake of this ‘lost’ child. It’s a shadow of what we see perfectly in Jesus Christ: the one who crushes the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15), the divine Son who steps down from light (“heaven”) to the dark world, and endures the cross (Hebrews 12:2) to rescue sinners. For those who put their faith in Christ, God “delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Colossians 1:13-14)
Mattie’s salvation is both cinematically poignant and deliberately couched in Biblical imagery. But the story doesn’t end there: both Mattie’s retribution and her salvation will stay with her for the rest of her life.
Stick around for Part 3.
*For an explanation of Genesis 3, the passage featuring the talking snake, fruit, fig leaves, and a curse, watch The God Who Is There – Part 2 – The God Who Does Not Wipe Out Rebels.
^ In the novel, Mattie’s physical salvation points her to spiritual salvation: as Mattie is carried along she brings to mind “the stone that the builder’s rejected has become the cornerstone”, (Psalm 118:22, Isaiah 28:16), an allusion to Jesus (Acts 4:11)
After her father is murdered by one of his employees, Mattie Ross engages a deputy U.S. Marshal to track down the killer. She’s given three recommendations, but chooses Rooster Cogburn because she hears he’s a man with “true grit”. Meanwhile, Texas Ranger La Beouf is pursuing the same man for a shooting of a senator in another state.
True Grit is one of my personal favourite films of 2010 – meticulously crafted, sweeping cinematography and like the Coen Brothers previous work, there’s plenty of humourous dialogue sprinkled throughout. Every situation reveals something about the central characters, and this is crucial in understanding the film’s themes of faith, revenge, and of course true grit.
From the opening frames of the film, faith is prominent: from the verse from the book of Proverbs, to the light streaming through the front door of the house onto her father’s body, to Mattie’s declaration that there is nothing free except the grace of God.
As Mattie sets out to bring the killer to justice, she believes her cause to be a righteous one. The opening verse “The wicked flee when no one pursues” (Proverbs 28:1) would be ringing in her mind, as it should in ours. The author of her faith (Hebrews 12:2), she writes, watches over her. The soundtrack throughout underscores her faith, prominently featuring old hymns, in particular Leaning on the Everlasting Arms, based on Deutoronomy 33:27: “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” Interestingly, the second part of the verse says: “He will drive out your enemies before you, saying, ‘Destroy them!’”.
As the adventure unfolds we meet Rooster Cogburn – memorably played by Jeff Bridges – the man described as having “true grit”. He thinks of himself as an instrument of wrath, and he’s a tough no-nonsense guy. He’s a deputy marshal who enjoys taking out the trash – as we learn in one memorable court scene. He’s also an alcoholic, and at times we’re left wondering whether Cogburn has any spirit apart from the bottled variety.
And then there’s La Boeuf, played by Matt Damon, whose identity rests in a uniform – a Texas Ranger (and a proud one), sporting a badge, spurs and a quick tongue, and one whom Cogburn delights in taunting. Their frequent sparring threatens to derail the pursuit, and after LaBeouf leaves declaring the manhunt a ‘debauch’ on account of Cogburn’s drinking – and that the marshal has nothing to offer – Mattie finds herself face to face with the killer.
Despite these setbacks, Mattie’s indomitable spirit – her grit – has brought her to Chaney but can she avenge her father’s death, and find the justice she seeks?
We’ll go deeper in Part Two.
Justice and mercy take a beating as Liam Neeson punches and shoots his way to his daughter’s freedom in the 2008 movie Taken. Neeson stars as Brian Mills, an ex-CIA agent whose daughter is kidnapped by human traffickers.
Taken relies heavily on our sense of justice…or is it our desire for revenge – that bad people deserve bad things to happen to them. Thus, there is a horrible crime with horrible perpetrators, a helpless victim and a driven, capable rescuer, and the rescuer has the skills to deliver the kind of justice the law may not provide. Given the stakes, why wait for the legal system to catch up when justice is readily available in a handgun? These people are really evil so it seems appropriate that Mills destroy them, which he does with all manner of guns, vehicles and other weapons.
I found myself thinking, “You know what, if those people did that to a daughter of mine I would want someone to make them pay. They would be getting what they deserve.” It seemed appropriate that such scum should receive such treatment. With thrills a-plenty as the bad guys get their rewards, I connected easily with the lead character’s plight. Liam Neeson’s Mills is a force that cannot be reckoned with and the film clips along at a staggering pace.
One of the most disturbing moments in the film though was when Mills extracts information from one of the men involved. The bound man is tortured for information in a long drawn out scene which ends with Mills electrocuting him having succeeded with the extraction. And it is here that the film’s boldest statement on justice is made: No mercy. Ever. Mills could have turned him over to authorities for processing but there was no room for this in Mills’ sense of justice as he searches for his daughter.
From this point on the film snowballs, the body count mounts and it’s really anything goes, an all-out assault as Mills follows the leads to the very top. And the depiction of the father’s love for his daughter was satisfyingly touching. Mills went to extreme lengths to save her from the indignity of her enslavement and I was reminded of how God spared no expense to bring me out of the slavery of sin and make me His child, through a most violent means – the death of His son Jesus. This good news frees people from seeking revenge in order to seek justice (including judicial punishment), forgiveness, reconciliation, as difficult as that may be.
Human sex-trafficking is among the most disgusting crimes in the world. Taken makes this clear though it at times seems to serve as a vehicle for a revenge film. Yet something must be said of the way that Mills goes beyond the law to bring the perps to ‘justice’: perhaps if the one who was not shown mercy, had been shown mercy. Maybe he would have repented. Who knows how his life may have turned out? Instead, the saviour in Taken leaves him to fry in a dark basement. There can be no greater contrast with the Lord Jesus who conquers sin by dying in the place of sinners for sinners, and not completely destroying them…even if they thoroughly deserve it.