01/28/2011 10:25 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

True Grit and the Truth about Revenge

Oscar nominations were announced this week and the biggest surprise was the Academy's lavish support for True Grit, the Coen brothers' remake of the 1970 film, which itself was an adaptation from a Charles Portis novel.

True Grit received ten nominations, including one for best picture, best director, and best actor. All this for a throwback cowboy Western that didn't receive a single Golden Globe nomination, with reviews that were largely mixed and critics far more enamored of The Social Network and The King's Speech.

Yet, True Grit became an early box office juggernaut, drawing large audiences in an otherwise lukewarm winter season for film viewing. Film critic and historian Neal Gabler recently noted that in an age of split-second social media, audiences no longer depended on the cultural elite for recommendations on what movies to see. The legions of friended and Tweeted now can provide their own thumbs up or down commentary merely by pressing the send key.

But this cultural moment where True Grit finds itself as one of America's most popular films is neither surprising nor necessarily of its own making. The Coen brothers, who have made their careers out of offering interesting new takes on cinema staples, from noir to thrillers, were destined to one day direct their sibling energies onto America's time-honored morality tales where victims get even and wrongdoers receive their due. Indeed, the last Hollywood Western to generate this level of popular interest and critical praise was Clint Eastwood's, Unforgiven (1992), yet another drama of frontier justice in the otherwise lawless Wild West.

Americans are not alone in their obsession with revenge-based dramas. Ancient Greek myths and Biblical stories understood that the most direct route to justice often requires traveling along the bumpy roads of revenge. In every era in human history, artists have reflected the moral urgency of vengeance, from the high-art of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama to the lowbrow makers of heart-stopping horror films.

For nearly a century the world has feasted on America's cultural appetite for watching a score being settled and payback justly received. Many of Hollywood's biggest blockbusters and cult classics are paradigms of the revenge genre, from Gladiator and Braveheart, to The Godfather (I and II) and Kill Bill (Vol. 1 and 2). There is V for Vendetta and A Time to Kill; and, more recently, Taken and The Brave One. One of America's most revered Broadway musicals, Sweeney Todd, is also a macabre tale of revenge. And, in a classic of human complexity, Hamlet is the dutiful son who Shakespeare torments with the ambivalence and self-doubt that all avengers come to know.

The deeper truth of True Grit is that it, too, serves as a quick fix for our addiction to vengeance. But is revenge an unhealthy addiction or a guilty pleasure? We have all been warned, repeatedly, that revenge is barbaric, a holdover from primitive times. And yet vengeance properly taken feels so righteous and true, especially when depicted in a feature film. The audience roots for the avenger all the while knowing that individuals are not permitted to take justice into their own hands. Is this just an example of people acting out their fantasies of bloodlust while sitting in a darkened theater, like a peep show featuring an "eye for an eye"?

Perhaps, however, religious and judicial authorities, those who have outlawed vengeance, have been getting it wrong all along. Rooting for the righteous avenger is not voyeurism; it's merely encouraging the right guy to finish the job. Far from enabling vigilantes, maybe movies are projecting what true justice actually looks like, despite all evidence to the contrary.

What all revenge films have in common is that the avenger doesn't, initially, want the job. The law was given the first chance to punish the guilty. But the legal system so often fails, or is lazy and indifferent, or negligent, or procedurally incompetent. The guilty go free. Justice is not served. When that happens, those who have been wronged can't be expected to simply walk away and forget that a moral injury has been created and a debt--to both society and the individual--has gone unpaid.

Enter the avenger. The rallying point of every revenge film is that the law's failure becomes intolerable not just to fictional victims, but also to those who sit in movie theaters and will choke on popcorn unless something is done to even the score.

In True Grit, Mattie Ross fully expects that the local sheriff will bring her father's murderer to justice. When he refuses to give chase, Mattie must find someone of sufficient true grit who will restore moral balance by doing what's just and necessary. After she deputizes Rooster Cogburn as her father's avenger, she demonstrates her own grit by tagging along with him.

What else can a daughter do? To be worthy of her father's love Mattie must honor his memory and settle his accounts. Anything less than a complete reckoning is something movie audiences will not accept.

In life we allow for incomplete justice and curse our fate; in art we long for the righteous avenger to bring about the closure and moral clarity that is so often denied to us under the law.