In Sergio Leone’s films (I’m thinking particularly of his trilogy: A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), for the first time the dirt and sweat and moral complication of life on the frontier seemed to leave its mark on the righteous gunslinger.
Even in the title of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly we have this third term: the straight up opposition of Good vs Evil is complicated by something further. And this third, this ugliness destabilises the other two. The ugliness runs through all.
The power of these films derives in the realism of this vision compared with the two dimensional characters of previous Westerns. Leone establishes this brilliantly, the long close-ups of unshaven faces, gritty eyes, characters without clear pasts or identities.
But the canonical rule still holds. Even if the hero is no longer unsullied in his righteousness, as long as his cause is just he will win through, and mayhap find redemption.
Superficially, True Grit appears to obey the rules of the genre. The Coen’s version of Rooster Cogburn is certainly of the tribe of Leone’s ‘Man with No Name’ and his final ride feels like a ride to redemption. And yet…
True Grit is a film capable of being read in two directions, it is consistently and deliberately ambiguous and ambivalent. In this it is most similar to the Coen Brother’s previous film A Serious Man.
It is an ambiguity that wasn’t present in No Country for Old Men as much as we desperately wished for it. It is the ambiguity Leone was trying to capture in his characters, but writ large, rolled out into a cosmology. No Country for Old Men was practically an assertion of the complete disconnection between morality and necessity. Anton Chigurh was as dispassionate and unstoppable as a force of nature, sparing or killing at the toss of a coin.
Truthfully, sometimes our world feels that way. Good people die, bad people live, one house burns, the neighbours are untouched. But for most of us, most of the time, we don’t live as though blind fate ruled all. We feel as though there is some connection between our actions and our destinies, even if this connection is ambiguous. We’re like Job (or Larry Gopnik from A Serious Man) crying out for answers from God (or Science, or whatever) and waiting for him to speak out of the whirlwind.
“The wicked flee when none pursueth.” (Proverbs 28:1). True Grit opens with this line, indicating once again that the Coens are engaging in some exegesis of the Wisdom literature. The ambiguity sits and stares you in the face. It’s the genius of this proverb, the practical contradiction of this statement, which makes it pithy and memorable. If the wicked flee when none pursueth, isn’t it the case that they flee for no reason, pointlessly? The proverb is a statement about the insecurity of the wicked person, but the words are capable of being read another way…