The Coen Brothers latest film has generated a lot of discussion about its meaning. Some see it as religious, others as ‘flirting with nihilism’, and yet another as religious nihilism-whatever that means.
The heroine of the story, Mattie Ross opens the film with the following line: “You must pay for everything in this world one way and another. There is nothing free with the exception of God’s grace.” The Postmodernist Stanley Fish explains how this can be read in two different ways: “But free can bear two readings — distributed freely, just come and pick it up; or distributed in a way that exhibits no discernible pattern. In one reading grace is given to anyone and everyone; in the other it is given only to those whom God chooses for reasons that remain mysterious.”
He continues to explain that the latter reading is the correct one: “A third sentence, left out of the film but implied by its dramaturgy, tells us that the latter reading is the right one: “You cannot earn that [grace] or deserve it.” ….You can’t add up a person’s deeds — so many good one and so many bad ones — and on the basis of the column totals put him on the grace-receiving side (you can’t earn it); and you can’t reason from what happens to someone to how he stands in God’s eyes (you can’t deserve it).”
This sits nicely with a postmodern view of the world in which the cosmos displays no observable pattern. But it also is an expression of Calvinist theology: God picks the winners and losers in this life independent of our merits. Max Weber believed this theology was the underlying cause of the Protestant Work Ethic. Since there was no discernible pattern of who was and was not saved, Protestants unconsciously worked hard to prove to themselves that God had blessed/saved them. The fruits of their labor were the evidence that they were the elect.
This same dynamic is at work in the film. Mattie wants to see her father avenged. The killer has escaped and no one is lifting a finger about it. The opening shot gives us the first half of a Scripture verse: Proverbs 28:1: "The wicked flee when none pursueth . . ."
Mattie has to take the matter into her own hands. The 2nd half of the Scripture verse, which the Coens leave out, reads ". . . but the righteous are as bold as a lion."
She could leave the matter to God, but there is no guarantee that divine rewards and punishments correspond to a rational pattern. Mattie calls this a “hard doctrine” in the novel which the film is based upon.
Mattie undergoes the most severe trials, and ultimately loses an arm, in her quest to achieve justice. A Theology which was developed in order to prioritize the Divine will over the Human will ends up encouraging human willfulness. Ironic, indeed.