Calvinists Ride Again

‘True Grit’

As True Grit begins, the off-screen voice of its fourteen-year-old heroine, Mattie Ross, tells us that her father was murdered by his hired hand Tom Chaney in an Arkansas town of the 1870s, and that Chaney escaped when no citizen dared stand in his way. The tone of the speech is both ingenuous and determined, and when Mattie declares, with the steeliness of an Old Testament prophet, that the murderer will not go scot-free because nothing in life is free “but the grace of God,” we know that Tom Chaney has earned himself a formidable opponent.

While Mattie speaks we are looking at the crime scene immediately after the violence: the exterior of a boarding house on a dirt road. Mr. Ross’s corpse lying in front of the establishment is only a distant, obscurely perceived shape in the winter evening’s darkness. Slowly the camera travels toward the body, but before it gets there, the fleeing killer gallops across our view, left to right. The camera doesn’t pan with the rider to follow his getaway but continues its steady approach. The movement seems to be telling us to pay the varmint’s escape no mind. Let him go for now—his fate is sealed. Once the corpse comes into close view, it becomes as rocklike as Mattie’s demand for justice. Blood calls out for blood, and this is not the last dead...

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About the Author

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.