A little more than 30 years before the release of True Grit, the 15th film from brother-filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, the younger sibling, Ethan, wrote his senior thesis for Princeton University on the works of the Austrian philosopher Ludgwig Wittgenstein.
One of Wittgenstein's major areas of philosophical concern was religion and religious ideas, examining how people believe and express those beliefs in the way they define themselves and orient their lives.
While it most assuredly would be a leap of faith to claim that Ethan Coen's 1979 college study of Wittgenstein directly shaped the making of True Grit, which the Coen brothers jointly directed and adapted for the screen from its original source, the 1968 novel by Charles Portis, hints of the philosopher's take on religiosity float through the stellar film like tumbleweeds.
"If you and I are to live religious lives, it mustn't be that we talk a lot about religion, but that our manner of life is different," Wittgenstein said. "It is my belief that only if you try to be helpful to other people will you in the end find your way to God."
In the worlds created over the last quarter century by the brothers Coen, clearly the greatest good and highest moral value is that of decency. Their heroes are never perfect, but they are deeply decent folk.
The moral anchor of True Grit and the character who embodies Wittgenstein's idea of helping-your-way-to-God is 14-year-old Maddie Ross (played by the remarkable newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, 13), the precociously pious, profoundly Protestant daughter seeking to avenge the murder of her father by the sociopathic simpleton Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Maddie's faith and sense of right-and-wrong are reminiscent of the Coen's spiritual heroine Marge Gunderson (played by Joel Coen's wife Frances McDormand) in Fargo. Young Maddie is the epitome of unspoiled decency.
"The whole Presbyterian-Protestant ethic in a 14-year-old girl was interesting to us and sounded fun," Ethan Coen told the New York Times.
Like Marge, Maddie steps into the midst of mayhem with the force of a giant, her morality as simple as it is immovable, and sets about trying to reestablish order from chaos. She enlists the help of Rueben "Rooster" Cogburn (Jeff Bridges)-- a classic Coen antihero in the mold of Bridge's indelible Dude character from their masterpiece, The Big Lebowski. Bridge's Cogburn is a broken, conflicted, morally complicated soul. You can almost smell the odor of stale cigarettes, whiskey and despair emanating from the screen each time Cogburn appears. Yet, he triumphs, rising above seemingly insurmountable obstacles, not the least of which his self-imposed reprobation.
(John Wayne won his only Oscar for his portrayal of Cogburn in the 1969 screen adaptation of True Grit. Bridge's Cogburn is a darker, more gothic character than the Duke's, as is much of the Coen's version of Portis' story. In 2010, Cogburn, Maddie and the milieu of the film is, if you will, grittier.)
Maddie has faith in the unlikely hero and his "true grit." It's more than a personality trait. With her simple yet epic faith, Maddie believes Cogburn is the man, no doubt sent by God, to help her achieve moral retribution for her father's death.
"My father would want me to be firm in the right, as he always was," Maddie says early in the film. "The Author of all things watches over me ... and I have a good horse."
Explicit religious and scripture references appear throughout True Grit as they have been in past Coen films such as O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Barton Fink. Maddie quotes from the book of Psalms -- Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will have no fear, for Thou art with me -- an image that comes to fruition later in the film when she walks through a literal valley of death.
As they have in many of their past films, the Coens also use the film's soundtrack to tell the story. In True Grit, longtime Coen collaborator Carter Burwell has assembled a soundtrack of traditional Protestant hymns, most notably "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms," that function as Maddie's internal monologue (or, perhaps, her dialogue with God.)
Religious and spiritual ideas are hardly new ground for the Coens. From their first film, 1984's Blood Simple, to last year's A Serious Man, the Coens shrewdly engage serious existential and spiritual questions with great humor, a certain tenderness, and brutal honesty. Each film in their oeuvre -- most explicitly in A Serious Man and now in their re-telling of True Grit -- explores confounding spiritual and ethical quandaries. The filmmakers droop theological, philosophical and mythological touchstones into all of their films, including their most whimsical comedies.
While many will argue that God's grace is notably absent elsewhere in the "Coeniverse," it is powerfully present in True Grit. At the start of the film, Maddie says, with characteristic frankness, "There is nothing free with the exception of God's grace."
As the plot unfolds, it is precisely true grace -- deserved by none yet given freely to each -- and not "true grit" that makes all the difference.
Cathleen Falsani is author of The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers.