True Grit

grit-111Contrary to my announced intentions, I have avoided Raising Arizona for [at least] one more review. This wasn’t done on purpose. I was merely in a wi-fi cold spot the last time I had my computer with me AND had some time to read. My hard drive contained True Grit and did not contain Raising Arizona. Voila… another in a series of traveling coincidences.

Before I get into the actual review, I think it’s worth mentioning that, as much as I loved Jeff Bridges performance in The Big Lebowski, I could not stand him in True Grit. I thought at the time this was the fault of the movie. In other words, I thought the Brothers had adapted a bad story. After reading the script, I’m not as sure that Bridges wasn’t just miscast. More accurately, I’m not sure his mumbling, Best-Actor-winning, performance in Crazy Heart from the year before True Grit’s production wasn’t motivating him to mumble his way through this performance as well. And [to my opinion’s discredit] he WAS JUST AS NOMINATED for his interpretation of Rooster Cogburn as he was for his interpretation of Bad Blake. It is entirely possible I am the outlier.

1. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character. (each part worth 10 points)

[Let me postpone beginning AGAIN by noting this is the most restrained Coen Brothers script I’ve read so far. Not in terms of plot points, or violence done to the protagonist (exactly) so much as the style in which it is written. This and Miller’s Crossing are the two scripts that don’t read like “Coen Brothers Scripts” TO ME. By that I mean they feel a whole lot more like “blueprints” and a whole lot less like free standing works of art TO ME. And by that I mean, I did not enjoy reading this Coen Brothers script the way I usually enjoy reading a Coen Brothers script. It wasn’t a chore, but I didn’t race through its pages either.]

Part A) Now that I am eight scripts into their Corpus, I can say [with some critical legitimacy] exposition is an area in which the Brothers CAN struggle. They do tend to overindulge in the stuff. Most of the time they distract the reader from the exposition saturation by enclosing it in otherwise brilliant subtextual dialogue, but not always.

Unfortunately, True Grit is a script which struggles only slightly less than it succeeds. The Voice-Over of [possible] protagonist Mattie Ross (1) demonstrates this fact all by itself.

In all our previous discussions of Voice-Overs, we have managed to convincingly establish that:

Voice-Over is always exposition. (2)

If you’re going to justify its use in your script than you have to provide us with some thematic reason for including it. When we get to our discussion of theme, we will find that I don’t believe the Brothers quite pull off their Voice-Over intentions with Mattie. This means her Voice-Over is just exposition. To show this, I’ll cite her lengthy opening page narration [minus the action breaks].

VOICE-OVER
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…
I was just fourteen years of age
when a coward by the name of Tom
Chaney shot my father down and
robbed him of his life, and his
horse, and two California gold
pieces he carried in his trouser
band…
He got it into his head that he was
being cheated, and went back to the
boarding house for his Henry rifle.
When Papa tried to intervene,
Chaney shot him…
Chaney fled. He could have walked
his horse, for not a soul in that
city could be bothered to give
chase…
No doubt Chaney fancied himself
scot-free, but he was wrong. You
must pay for everything in this
world, one way and another. There
is nothing free, except the grace
of God…
You might say, what business was it
of my father’s to meddle? My
answer is this: he was trying to do
that short devil a good turn. He
was his brother’s keeper. Does
that answer your question?

Before we think to ask whether that opening narration sets us up thematically, let’s first acknowledge that it DEFINITELY gives us about half of the background information we need to understand the story.

Next I’ll note that I love the way the Brothers end with Mattie’s question to the audience. Beyond the obvious metafictional component which I [almost] always love [on principle], its transparent antagonism toward Us tells us a lot about what kind of woman Mattie became. Necessarily, then, it also tells us a lot about what kind of young woman she was.

Most of the rest of the exposition in the script comes during exchanges like the following from page 50:

MATTIE
That would be a bitter
disappointment, Marshal. What do
we do?

Rooster mounts up.

ROOSTER
We pursue. Ned is unfinished
business for the marshals anyhow,
and when we have him we will also
have Chaney——or we can learn the
whereabouts of his body. Bagby
doesn’t know which way they went,
but now we know they come through
here, they couldn’t be going but
one of two ways: north toward the
Winding Stair Mountains, or pushing
on further west. I suspect north.
There is more to rob.

The form is: Mattie asks a question, and one of the more knowledgeable lawman types answers. In other words, the Brothers are using the “master/apprentice technique to offset the strain of including too much exposition. This technique is handy, easy to use, and works fairly well.

Condensed to a single point [in order to sum into a score], I don’t think the Brothers do a poor job handling the script’s exposition, I just don’t think they do an outstanding job of handling it either:

6 out of 10 points.

Part B) Since we’ve spent all our time so far talking about Mattie, I thought we might balance the scales in this question by focusing our subtextual answer on Rooster. From pages 20-22:

MR. GOUDY
A king bolt? You were armed and he *
advanced upon you with nothing but
a king bolt? From a wagon tongue?

truegrit2COGBURN
I’ve seen men badly tore up with
things no bigger than a king bolt.
I defended myself.

MR. GOUDY
And, returning to the encounter
with Aaron and his two remaining
sons, you sprang from cover with
your revolver in hand?

COGBURN
I did.

MR. GOUDY
Loaded and cocked?

COGBURN
If it ain’t loaded and cocked it
don’t shoot.

MR. GOUDY
And like his son, Aaron Wharton
advanced against an armed man?

COGBURN
He was armed. He had that axe
raised.

MR. GOUDY
Yes. I believe you testified that
you backed away from Aaron Wharton?

COGBURN
That is right.

MR. GOUDY
Which direction were you going?

COGBURN
I always go backwards when I’m
backing up.

MR. GOUDY
Very amusing I suppose——for all of
us except Aaron Wharton. Now, he
advanced upon you much in the
manner of Clete Wharton menacing
you with that king bolt or rolledup
newspaper or whatever it was.

COGBURN
Yes sir. He commenced to cussing
and laying about with threats.

MR. GOUDY
And you were backing away? How
many steps before the shooting
started?

COGBURN
Seven, eight steps?

MR. GOUDY
Aaron Wharton keeping pace,
advancing, away from the fire seven
eight steps——what would that be,
fifteen, twenty feet?

COGBURN
I suppose.

MR. GOUDY
Will you explain to the jury, Mr.
Cogburn, why Mr. Wharton was found
immediately by the wash pot with
one arm in the fire, his sleeve and
hand smoldering?

COGBURN
Well.

MR. GOUDY
Did you move the body after you
shot him?

COGBURN
Why would I do that?

MR. GOUDY
You did not drag his body over to
the fire? Fling his arm in?

COGBURN
No sir.

MR. GOUDY
Two witnesses who arrived on the
scene will testify to the location
of the body. You do not remember
moving the body? So it was a
bushwack, as he tended his
campfire?

MR. BARLOW
Objection.

COGBURN
I, if that was where the body was I
might have moved him. I do not
remember.

MR. GOUDY
Why would you move the body, Mr.
Cogburn?

COGBURN
Them hogs rooting around might have
moved him. I do not remember.

I chose this as the example scene for three reasons:

1. It has elements of the “Coenesque” brand of dialogue writing as comedy that have made the Brothers famous. We see that in the banter about “backing up” and “cocked and loaded”, among other things.

2. It gives us a substantial dose of subtext about Cogburn’s character. Namely, his status as a marshal seems a bit arbitrary. His actions make him very close to the criminals he apprehends. In other words, he has little respect for the law or, more generally, telling the truth.

3. At first glance, this passage seems to upset all those pronouncements I made about declarative and interrogative sentence structures back in my last article on dialogue and subtext.

I will spend most of the time in this question talking about three, but we need to finish with two or we will be unable to make any sense of the thematic intentions later on.

Toward that end, I take it this scene gives us great insight into Cogburn’s questionable character. What it leaves out is the change in Rooster that happens from prolonged association with Mattie. Clearly, the Brothers intend us to understand that Cogburn forms something like a father/daughter attachment to her. Maybe for the first time in his life, Cogburn values someone else more than himself.

The final scenes establish this meme beyond question, but the scene I would like to quote comes from page 50:

ROOSTER
I bought an eating place called the
Green Frog, started calling myself
Burroughs. My drinking picked up
and my wife did not like the
company of my river friends. She
decided to go back to her first
husband, a clerk in a hardware
store. She said, “Goodbye, Reuben,
a love for decency does not abide
in you.” There’s your divorced
woman talking about decency. I told
her, “Goodbye, Nola, I hope that
little nail-selling bastard will
make you happy this time.” She
took my boy with her too. He never
did like me anyhow. I guess I did
speak awful rough to him but I did
not mean nothing by it. You would
not want to see a clumsier child
than Horace. I bet he broke forty
cups. . .

The entirety of that monologue is aimed solely at Mattie as she and Rooster ride through the wilderness looking for Chaney. From everything that has come before this scene, I do not get the feeling that Mr. Cogburn is someone who goes around telling random people his life story. The fact that he is telling it to Matttie demonstrates that something about her makes him feel comfortable.

At the very least, this passage implies they are friends.

I do, however, think we can claim more than friendship is developing owing to the specifics of the part of his lifestory Rooster relates. He’s telling Mattie about how his first attempt at being a regular family man ended in failure.

The exposition about Cogburn’s domesticity shortcomings continues on 54:

ROOSTER
My second wife, Edna, she had taken *
a notion she wanted me to be a
lawyer. Bought a heavy book called
Daniels on Negotiable Instruments
and set me to reading it. Never
could get a grip on it, I was happy *
enough to set it aside and leave
Texas. There ain’t but about six
trees between there and Canada, and
nothing else grows but has stickers
on it. I went to——

Again, the subject matter and tone imply a lot [through the subtext] about Rooster and why he will eventually make all those choices on Mattie’s behalf at the end of the script.

I thought all of this was exceptionally well done. That said, the subtextual field drawn around Mattie is FAR superior. We will hold that discussion until question three.

Before awarding the inevitable perfect score for this part I would like to circle back to the point made above as reason three in the ‘why I chose the courtroom scene’ list. For ease of discussion I’ll restate it:

3. At first glance, this passage seems to upset all those pronouncements I made about declarative and interrogative sentence structures back in my last article on dialogue and subtext.

Mr. Goudy manages to usurp all the power in this exchange, and yet, he speaks, almost exclusively, in interrogative sentences. If the thesis of my last article is correct, then this conversational outcome should be impossible. [By the way, the power flow from Cogburn to Goudy would be even more dramatic had I begun on 18 and quoted the entire scene. In the beginning of their exchange Cogburn is clearly the conversational winner. He continually scores points against the (seemingly) overmatched Goudy.]

The resolution of this contradiction occurs when you realize that Mr. Goudy has used his interrogatives to place Cogburn in a verbal bind. All his questions have forced Rooster to admit that he wants the court to believe that Mr. Wharton was beside the fire when he was shot and, at the same time, 15 to 20 feet in front of the fire when he was shot.

Naturally, anytime one character gets another character to admit to lying, the character making the admission has ceded all possibility of power over the conversation. Remember back when we began the new dialogue articles, we noted the primary purpose of speech was to:

Allow people to trust each other.

If, as a speaker, you undermine the point of conversation, you’ve [necessarily] lost.

10 out of 10 points.

tg4Part C) Since we’ve used Mattie and Cogburn as the first two vertices in our triangle of dialogue analysis, it only seems fair that we use Leboeuf for our discussion of individuation. From page 41:

LEBOEUF
I am not accustomed to so large a
fire. In Texas, we will make do
with a fire of little more than
twigs or buffalo chips to heat the
night’s ration of beans.

Rooster enters the circle of light with an armload of wood.

. . . And, it is Ranger policy
never to make your camp in the same
place as your cookfire. Very
imprudent to make your presence
known in unsettled country.

Once again, I believe the Brothers are playing name games as Lebeouf is French for “the bull” and [I did not know this before this review], apparently, it’s also French vernacular for a “big strong man”. Nothing about Leboeuf’s overly-proper/SAT-word-dropping style of speaking suggests he is, in fact, a “big strong man”. Also, he pontificates [whenever the context allows] on any subject concerning the apprehension of criminals. And yet, as Mattie notes [page 28]:

MATTIE
I’m sorry that you are paid
piecework not on wages, and that
you have been eluded the winter
long by a halfwit. Marshal Cogburn
and I are fine.

If his pursuit of Chaney is any indication, he’s in no position to be dispensing tracking tips.

10 out of 10 points.

Footnotes:

1. Yes, this will be another Brothers script in which we eventually have to decide who they meant as protagonist. Will it be Mattie or… is it Rooster?

2. I’ll not bother re-establishing this again. I’ll just recommend you spend a weekend reading all the posts on this blog. It will be worth your time.

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