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Stanley Fish on True Grit

December 28, 2010

My favorite literary critic reviews the latest offering by my favorite directors. The review concludes with an astonishing claim:

The new “True Grit” is that rare thing — a truly religious movie. In the John Wayne version religiosity is just an occasional flourish not to be taken seriously. In this movie it is everything, not despite but because of its refusal to resolve or soften the dilemmas the narrative delivers up.

More specifically, Fish associates religiosity with the character of Maggie, who he says maintains faith in the righteousness of her path “despite the absence of external guideposts.” Rather, Maggie is confronted at every turn by senseless brutality — hangings, robbings, shootings, and the like.

I, for one, am more impressed by Flannery O’Connor’s understanding of the relationship between violence and faith. “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” the grandmother exclaims to the Misfit as he holds a pistol to her head. For O’Connor, the grandmother’s moment of grace paradoxically depends upon the threat of violence — a sharp contrast to the world portrayed by True Grit (and by Coen movies more generally), in which violence is devoid of meaning.

Of course, the Misfit goes ahead and shoots the grandmother anyway. In O’Connor, violence may serve as an occasion for grace, but grace can by no means put a stop to violence. Fish sees the latter point being made in True Grit without recognizing the possibility of the former.

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