I am officially reversing my stance on Westerns. Previously, I’ve been dismissive of what I perceived as an inherently archaic genre celebrating “the violent, lawless wilderness breached by the noble forces of civilization.” Even Westerns that rejected that model seemed trapped in the paradigm, like Dances With Wolves, which reverses the polarity but is, in many ways, just as simplistic. The brilliant, prematurely canceled TV series Deadwood—with its much more complicated, nuanced view of the conflicts between “wilderness” and “civilization”—made me reconsider, but I eventually judged it the exception that proves the rule. But True Grit has finally convinced me that it’s quite possible to tell a Western without that problematic wilderness/civilization binary overwhelming the drama.
The nineteenth-century frontier setting in True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen’s new movie, is entirely traditional—it’s a place of adventure, danger, and possibilities—but there’s not the sense of it being a place of darkness in contrast to light elsewhere (or vice versa). Maybe I overestimated the weight of the baggage from decades of Westerns past—or maybe I’m underestimating it now—but Grit feels alive and free in a way I hadn’t expected from the genre. I’m happy to be wrong.