Let me recommend to you this fine review of this season’s best movie. Once again, I think the Coen brothers more than flirt with nihilism. The murderous violence of the film is, deep down, senseless, and the girl’s quest for justice defined as vengeance most misguided.
Still, two bounty hunters operating as fairly lawless (and murderous) officers of the law are raised to the heights of courage and honor by their service to the spirited and uncannily eloquent young woman. They perform ably and nobly as warriors when it counts, and they save her even as she proves herself to be at least as manly (if physically weaker) as they are. The Coens allow us not to be that skeptical about the sheer beauty of their Homeric deeds.
Sure, we’re constantly reminded of the disrespect for human life of these ex-Confederates (the Bridges/Cogburn character rode with the notorious Captain Quantrill of Missouri–the state where all the rules of war vanished into bloodlust). But we’re also constantly reminded of the strange sort of cultivation that made these manly men (and woman) more able to articulate who they are than we are. The language of the film echoes that of the novel, where basically unlettered men speak with a formal and precise pagan grace. There’s something civilized and even lawful in the violently state-of-nature Indian territory. These men and especially the very young woman are in some ways more civilized than we are, although, of course, not in many ways.
The film shows us what’s to be said for and against the virtue that animated the Confederacy and the postbellum southern frontier. It doesn’t varnish the truth about honor, even as it displays the virtue it can become when ennobled by personal love.
The review is right to say that the beautiful language of the film is of the Americans who once were full of the language of the King James Version of the Bible and Shakespeare. But it would seem that the lives of the characters were hardly governed at all by the New Testament. It’s true enough that the best of our southern warriors have always been only superficially Christian. Still, the novel or the Coens themselves allow us to leave the film wondering, at least, if there’s room for grace in a cruel and violent world, just as we wonder whether there’s room for real men and spirited women in our seemingly hyper-civilized world, where every effort is made to expel cruelty and suffering and all risky business from our lives.