One of the final films to be released in 2010, True Grit has been a bit of a last minute surprise to many folk. First, True Grit has thrown critics for a curve. A heartfelt Christmas movie from the Coen brothers? Could it be? The movie seems a straightforward and unlikely foray into the Western genre by two filmmakers better known for darker, more comedic flicks like The Big Lebowski and Fargo. Second, it’s the Coen brothers’ most financially successful flick to date. Made on a budget of about $35 million (peanuts for a genre film: see Inception, which cost $160 million to make), the movie has already doubled the U.S. take of the Coen’s previously largest grossing film, the quasi-action flick No Country For Old Men, pulling in $165 million to date. True Grit, like many Oscar nominees this season, including The King’s Speech, is the smaller movie that could.
The Coen brothers have a devoted cult fan base and much critical successes. Now they have on their hands a veritable box office hit. What accounts for this movie’s huge breakout? And how far a departure for the Coen brothers is True Grit? Finally, is there any connection between these two things? Delving into the script—one of my favorites of the year—I look at some of the elements contributing to the film’s multiple levels of success.
First up for me was the question of True Grit’s genre. All screenplays have common elements. But each genre—drama, comedy, thriller, action, western or sci-fi, etc—has its own set of rules and expectations. Determining genre like determining “world” may not be something that screenwriting books spend a lot of time discussing, but it’s a crucial initial decision that governs plot choices, narrative structure, world, tone, and character types. Though mixed genre movies such as Knight and Day have become all the rage, a writer usually still begins from a single framework. Only then are stereotypes turned on their head and/or other elements added in to remix or confound the expected course of events.
True Grit is a remake of a film that starred one of the most iconic Western figures of our time, John Wayne. The Coen version has horses, guns, a barren landscape, a hanging tree, Stetsons, Colts and spurs. Heck, it’s got a corpse scavenger in a full-body bear suit. (Less of a stereotype, but still …) The early trailers proclaimed True Grit to be a film about retribution. The characters go on a journey from the civilized world into uncivilized territory to avenge a man’s killing. Is this a Western? Of course it is.
But if it’s a Western, it’s one with a difference apparent from the opening lines:
People do not give it credence that a young girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood, but it did happen.
As 14-year-old Mattie Ross, our young heroine, continues in voiceover the distinction’s even clearer: this ain’t your father’s John Wayne flick. This Western’s got religion—and it features a girl.
What accounts for the switch of focus from Marshal Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne’s character) to Mattie, our young heroine? As many have pointed out, some of this has to do with a return to the movie’s origin material. It’s Mattie’s, not Rooster’s, story that frames the novel. In interviews, however, the Coens also make a genre distinction. They describe the film as a young adult adventure. And it is Mattie’s adventure that most stands out in this version. One could argue that Mattie still catalyzes Rooster’s redemption, but, if so, her function in that respect is strongly underplayed. [Note that producer Scott Rudin has stated that Jeff Bridges is the movie’s protagonist, but given the many statements by the Coen brothers that seem to contradict this point of view it’s probably fair to say Rudin’s statement was either Academy-directed and/or made in a certain context.)
Thematically too the movie seems as much adventure story or bildungsroman as straight-up Western. Westerns usually focus on good and evil. To be sure, the lines between the just and the unjust have disintegrated as the genre ages (see Clint Eastwood’s The Unforgiven for a masterful culmination of this modern day trend.) Here, however, justice seems less a contested value than utterly beside the point. As is made clear in an early hanging and courtroom scene, not to mention several hilarious bargaining scenes between Mattie and the local auctioneer, it is Mattie’s dubious Christian righteousness, her desire for vengeance, and the money paid to the “employees” that’s driving this search for a wrongdoer. If any of the characters possess a moral code, it’s an unstable one at best. The villain, Tom Chaney, is a bad guy to be sure. But he’s less evil incarnate than pure nincompoop. Law and order form the backdrop, but the film’s main focus, like that of many Coen flicks, is on quirky folks having “lively times,” a true adventure storyline. The Coens stick fairly closely to the novel’s language, which is a stylized darkly comedic voice. If True Grit’s a Western, it’s also a young adult adventure with darkly comedic elements. In other words, it’s a Coen movie that’s also for the younger set.
True Grit’s also not a movie of much plot—whether Western, action, or adventure. The characters take a rather straightforward journey into the wilderness and back. There’s a twist or two toward the end, but most of the complications involve the coming together and breaking apart of the three leads, who separate and reunite more than once. [The repetition of this pattern is one of the few liberties that the Coens take with the novel’s text.] Language, characters, and relationships are what this movie is about. From the gumption-filled Mattie Ross; to the drunken, cornbread-shooting Marshal Rooster Cogburn, the man Mattie drafts and pays $100 to go after her father’s killer; to the long-winded if persistent Texas Ranger, LeBoeuf, who is tracking Chaney for reasons of his own, most of which to seem involve the state of Texas’s bounty on Chaney’s head, these wonderful characters both subvert and fulfill their stereotypes as ready adventurers. And oh what terrific dialogue they speak! As Rooster observes in one of the movie’s classic lines, “I am struck that LeBoeuf is shot, trampled, and nearly severs his tongue and not only does not cease to talk but spills the banks of English.” True Grit is a Shakespearean comedy of a sort. And the uniquely American Protestant hardass at its center with the church-inflected tongue is one character that even Max Weber couldn’t have dreamed up.
As the movie progresses, the Coens seem to have fallen for their heroine almost as hard as we viewers have. LeBoeuf and Rooster have frequent spats over their honor. Yet it’s often unclear what’s really at stake in these quarrels. Are the fights about the men’s opposite allegiances, to Marshaldom /Judge Parker and to the Texas Rangers, respectively? Or are these two older cocks mostly preening before a courageous if foolhardy young girl hoping not to embarrass themselves in the process? Certainly LeBoeuf has a quasi-desirous relationship with Mattie. He alternately wants to steal a kiss and spank the saucy young miss. Yet though Rooster is more fatherly and honorable, he too seems desirous of protecting his reputation in front of this young follower who learns by example to help out, haul her own water, and draw a loop around her bed at night to keep out the snakes (the latter two acts of which not only fail miserably in keeping her out of trouble but arguably draw her further in.)
More often than not, when Mattie calls Rooster on points of honor, courage or even legal obligation, Rooster leaps to satisfy the requirement. So here’s another irony to this delicious irony-filled script. Two men, one all vanity—LeBoeuf decked out in a buckskin (!) fringed jacket and ridiculously overdone spurs—and one with seemingly none—Rooster drunken and unwashed to his core—are both in their own way hoorawed by this young girl, even as she in return earns their respect, her spurs, and a strange kind of devotion.
But here’s where I think the real genius of the script sets in. The Coen brothers are known for their coruscating irony. It’s an irony that many find delightful, absurd, and laugh out loud funny. The fans of The Big Lebowski’s “Dude” alone are legion. But irony is a tricky thing. Overdone, it leaves many viewers and readers cold. We don’t like feeling tricked and we don’t like our deepest values made fun of.
In Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn, however, the Coen brothers have met their perfect match. There is so much situational irony and dramatic irony in this script we might have left the theaters with our heads spinning. (Spoiler alert.) Rooster carries Mattie to safety and the opening and closing music is a hymn called “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” yet after their adventure Mattie and Rooster never see each other again. Mattie’s biblical desire for revenge is slaked, but what kind of justice exactly has been served? And isn’t Mattie’s physical loss, not to mention that of her beloved Blackie, a heavy price paid? Rooster Cogburn goes from hero of the Western territory to a buffoonish character advertised as having “skill and dash” in a Wild West Show. Mattie ends up a single woman who, her twisted Americana values still intact, continues to love above all “her church and her bank.” LeBoeuf we imagine is still out there a “shtalwart” if still preening Texas Ranger with an untamed cowlick.
And yet, and yet, and yet. Mattie and Rooster form an undeniable relationship. And we fall head over heels in love with this 14-year-old rebel, her cranky protector, and their “conshiderably diminished” companion. We understand that all sorts of thematic grounds—religious, legal, moral, financial, romantic—are being cut away from under our feet in this remarkable script. But these characters demand our loyalty and devotion and we reward them with it. Why? I would argue that genre has everything to do with it. Nothing is as it seems in this movie, yet remarkably the characters still remain faithful to genre expectations. The journey is taken, the adventure is completed, the return to civilization assured, and, assuming we buy the western framing, the goal of getting the bad guy achieved. Our characters stand up for each other. They are both true and they have grit. Rooster defends LeBoeuf when he unwittingly walks into a trap. LeBoeuf takes out gang leader Lucky Ned with a shot that nearly undoes him when Ned is poised to kill Rooster in a final standoff. Mattie simultaneously conquers her demons and Tom Chaney when she finally manages to shoot her father’s killer dead. LeBoeuf and Cogburn work together to rescue Mattie when she falls into a snake-filled pit. Finally, Cogburn literally carries Mattie in his arms to safety. Each of these genre determined plot points is delivered with its own ironic twist, sure. But they are delivered all the same.
If irony has its dangers, the palpable love of a sacrilegious father for his overly righteous daughter may just conquer the traps that wait therein. Put that loveable albeit unusual character mix into a genre-determined framework and the result is a powerful lesson in screenwriting or in writing of any sort. Irony—linguistic, situational, and dramatic, even coruscating irony—must be balanced by characters that we can identify with, characters that we feel deep in our hearts. And what serves better than genre rules and the meeting of genre journey expectations to guide those feelings along? Too much irony is chilling. Too little surprise and too much heart leave us drowning in a sentimental bath. Genre needs its rules, and its subversions. Art needs commerce and commerce needs art. If properly balanced, the combination of heart, head and surprise is an unbeatable force. If I haven’t sufficiently made the case for the Coens successful turn with True Grit, well just look at the box office results.