The Purple States of True Grit; or, Bridging the Gap, One Movie Theater at a Time

True Grit has accomplished the impossible. Unity! It’s a miracle! It’s hope, change, and Old West dialogue all mixed together!

True Grit has bridged the red state/blue state divide, Frank Rich of The New York Times writes. It’s a hit with coastal elites and Middle America family-values families alike, something that the blue/red mix of voters responding to Obama’s campaign of hope and change promised to be, and we know how that turned out. So leave it to a late 1960s novel with a darkly comic tween voice and the deft, respectful-of-the-genre direction of the Coen Brothers to pull the American audience closer in sync than any amount of political wrangling has done.

I ain't kidding, pilgrim.

Rich writes that the phenomenon happened before, when the mood in 1969 America was restive, cynical, and smarting from the the hypocrisy of The Man. Then along rode (The Man’s man) John Wayne to the rescue, fresh from the jingoistic The Green Berets into the celluloid fields of Yell County, Arkansas–hard-drinking, profane, yet with a heart the size of the Great Plains. Sweet, sentimental, played for laughs by Wayne, the movie completely charmed the pants off elites and midwestern-valued folks alike, giving him an Oscar and–to this day–tears in the eyes of fans who rhapsodize about his performance.

2010’s¬†True Grit, as I’ve written before, wasn’t a vehicle for one actor, but a vehicle for a story of law and order. But whose law? Whose order? The law is in Marshal Rooster Cogburn’s star but mainly in the chambers of his gun, at the service of Mattie Ross’s ordered universe that demands an eye for an eye. Villainy divided by (Gun + Righteousness) = the reestablishment of balance and harmony. That simple equation is as satisfying now as when William S. Hart’s gimlet-eyed gaze spooked villains in the early 1900s.

We ain't kidding either.

No wonder that during this time of rampant institutional-sized rip-offs, the rule of law is viewed as being as dissolute and petty as Marshal Cogburn appears at the beginning of the film, scratching his dirty belly, drunk and stoned, eager for money but not for the responsibility. No wonder a character like Mattie Ross is so popular–prim and virtuous but with a gleam of vengeance in her eye that fires the engine of the journey toward retribution and satisfaction.

The success of the film–more successful than any other Coen Brothers flick and beyond anyone’s expectations for a genre that’s supposed to have long gone tits up in a ditch–reveals the true unifying factor in America.¬†Wanting criminals to pay dearly is the desire burning through the folk of the cities and the Heartland. They’re the Matties who wish they could pay the most ruthless lawman/gunslinger to go out and drag in the culprits–and also follow along and watch.

But what about forgiveness? Turning the other cheek? Ha! Not in this script, buckos. Not in this script.

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