True Grit (3)

tg part 31Today I conclude my dizzyingly long discussion of the Coen Brothers script True Grit. Part One of the review can be found here. You can then follow that up with Part Two. Lastly, here is a link to the script.

3. Does the structure of the story have (a) a suitable number of reveals (b) an engine that fits its protagonist (c) a pinch point the engine funnels toward and (d) a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story? (parts a and d worth 10 points, parts b and c worth 5)

Part A) I remember back to my review of A Serious Man in which I took the time to list that script’s setups and reveals as a shorthand against ever having to go through that much effort again over a Coen Brothers script. Basically, I wanted to prove that if I said a Brothers script had enough reveals, then it had enough reveals. The idea was that anyone seeking proof would be directed to the A Serious Man review.

I shall now be using True Grit as the example script any time I want to point to a Brothers script that is unnaturally light on setups and reveals. Hardly anything happens in this script at all. In list form, we have:

1. Mattie’s hiring of Cogburn.
2. The pursuit of Chaney by Team Mattie [Cogburn, Leboeuf, and Mattie]
3. The killing of Chaney [alongside the injuring of everyone on Team Mattie].
4. Cogburn’s refusal to let Mattie die.
5. The fast forward summation of Mattie and Cogburn’s lives, since the incident with Tom Chaney.

The list is a mild exaggeration. Very mild. My instincts tell me that the reason this script reads less intensely than other Coen Brothers scripts is because there are not enough setups and reveals:

3 out of 10 points.

Part B) Since this “engine” question relates SOLELY to the protagonist, it is time for me to settle on who I want for the role—Mattie or Cogburn. The Coen Brothers are notorious for allowing more than one character to share the primary spotlight in their stories, and True Grit will count as another in a growing list of examples of this point.

The Voice Over tells us this movie is Mattie’s because, [in purely structural terms] the most likely owner of a story being told by a narrator IS the narrator. From the standpoint of Story Design, it’s just about impossible to use the narrator device in your story and not have the narrator as your lead character. Of course, the first counterexample I can think of, Blood Simple, was written by the Coen Brothers, so structure and Story design hardly settle the matter.

Perhaps we can use character arcs as our litmus.

Surely the Coens would not flout convention so severely that they would write a story in which a secondary character arcs and the main character flat lines? Since I don’t [seriously] think they would, I’ll ask: in a contest between Mattie and Cogburn, which one exits the story with greater story altitude?

It’s got to be Cogburn.

He grows from a selfish, self-obsessed, Marshal with a mean [or is it just criminal] streak into a man who will recklessly sacrifice his life in order to save another. That is classic protagonist grandstanding.

Mattie, on the other hand, is exactly as inflexible [in her will] when she hires Rooster to help her enact her revenge on Chaney as she is when she digs Rooster’s dead body up to bring it back to her family plot in Yell County. Mattie has learned nothing from being the centerpiece of her story.

That puts our score at Rooster 1, Mattie 1. [How will we ever force this moment to its crisis?]

As I did with No Country for Old Men, I’m going to call this protagonist battle in favor of the character I DON’T think the Coens meant to have the title. I am convinced [if you asked them] they would name Mattie as their choice. I base this on the affection they showed for her character in the interviews they did while promoting the film… along with the structural necessity inherent in making her the owner of the script initiating [and concluding] Voice-Over. However, I am going to defy their intentions and go with Rooster. I will base this choice on what I take to be the real theme of True Grit. It is a theme their misanthropic tendencies rebelled so strongly against, they could only make this movie if they told themselves it was about the unerringly inflexible Mattie.

For now, we will say the engine of this script is Rooster’s need to find something to care about. An aging, alcoholic lawman-with-a-death-wish stuck in the obsolescing Wild West… is the perfect person to set on the trail of finding something worth caring about.

5 out of 5 points.

Part C) I define the pinch point of this script as coming on page 86. It is contained within the following line of dialogue:

Do what you think is best, Ned!
She is nothing to me but a lost

A short beat, through which we hear only the rush of
riverwater. Then, Rooster’s voice again:

. . . Think it over first.

It is quite clear to me that Rooster’s hesitation, the thing that forces him to add his:

. . . Think it over first.

Is the moment where he finally knows he cares for someone more than he cares for himself. This is the moment where he is prepared to sacrifice. I loved the moment, and I believe it functions perfectly as a pinch point.

5 out of 5 points.

Part D) Before we talk theme, I must settle the outstanding subtextual debt I still owe question one when I avoided talking about Mattie’s character.

I don’t think any series of lines sums her up better than this from pages 108-109:

Mattie speaks to two men who sit on the rear platform of the
rear car. They are old men drinking Coca-Colas. One doffs
his hat and rises when Mattie addresses the pair; the other
stays seated, slurping from his bottle.

Yes’m, I am Cole Younger. This is
Mr. James. It grieves me to tell
you that you have missed Rooster.
He passed away, what, three days
ago, when the show was in Jonesboro
Arkansas. Buried him there in the
confederate cemetery. Reuben had a
complaint what he referred to as
“night hoss” and I believe the warm
weather was too much for him. We
had some lively times. What was
the nature of your acquaintance?

I knew the marshal long ago. We
too had lively times. Thank you,
Mr. Younger.

As she turns to go she addresses Frank James, who has been
staring at her:

. . . Keep your seat, trash.

It seems pretty clear that Mattie is upbraiding Frank James because he didn’t stand when she entered the room [the way Cole Younger does]. Calling someone “trash” for not following the convention of standing when a woman enters the room is a pretty apocalyptic way of answering such a mild act of disrespect.

Mattie hasn’t changed a bit from the girl who insisted on bothering a Marshal while he was occupying the jakes. Her philosophy of life is so succinct you could almost fit it on a bumpersticker:

You must pay for everything in this world.

Mattie believes, and she believes this more stridently than any other literary character I can [at this moment] remember: It is a greater sin to fail to deliver the consequences of indiscretion than it is to commit the indiscretion itself.

Mattie is the world’s first fully functioning psychopath of justice.

We can argue that she comes by this impairment honestly. It seems to have been passed down to her by her father, whose memory she wants to honor by murdering his murderer. From page 1:

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.

And then [the already quoted] page 3:

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?

This demonstration of adherence to moral authority seems to vitiate the entire idea of ethical principles as things in themselves. Of what use to your daughter are your principles, if those principles keep you from your daughter. Mr. Ross has failed in his obligation as a father by trying to succeed in his obligation to Justice. To be unable to see the obligations to children outweigh the obligations to society is the definition of being blind.

Mr. Ross strikes me as the kind of person who would argue this point with Kantian ammunition. He would very likely tell us that he cannot will a world in which every daughter has her father and yet, no one stands up for Justice.

The fact that Mr. Ross’ reasoning is sound does not mean he’s not a psychopath; it simply means he’s not an illogical one. I’m quite sure he would also argue that his willingness to follow his principles even if they lead to his death is a demonstration of purposefulness that hardly any [maybe no other] fathers would be willing to make. He is telling her a person does not really believe in something unless s/he is willing to die in its defense. [An idea which will become rabidly significant shortly, when we begin to consider Cogburn’s actions at the end of this script.]

Again, I am reminded of the No Country review. At the time, I decided the most important line for determining that script’s theme was this one from Chigurgh:

Let me ask you something. If the
rule you followed brought you to
this, of what use was the rule?

I believe Mattie is a fellow Chigurhian. Now, clearly she is a Chigurhian in the opposite direction as Chigurh, but the psychological component which underlies her personality is the same for her as it is for Anton:

They both indulge a psychopathic indulgence in rule following.

If I may be presumptuous and “peek behind the veil” I’d guess that the Coens are very attracted to this type of character. It’s not for nothing that True Grit and No Country are BOTH adaptations. The Brothers CHOSE to make these stories into movies for a reason. The reason I will supply them with is that they like Chigurhian characters.

The problem with the Chigurhian character is that s/he will always struggle as a protagonist. These characters, because they are deficient as humans, can’t learn in the way ordinary humans learn. Because they can’t learn, they can’t arc. Because they can’t arc, it’s very hard for anyone [even geniuses] to put them into the protagonist role. A protagonist, BY DEFINITION, is the character selected, by the story being told, to learn the truth in that story’s theme.

tg pt 32It constitutes more veil peeking to say this, but I believe the Coens are attracted to these characters because they align well with their generalized misanthropy. I’m not sure that I can prove it, but I intuit that the major driving force which undergirds the personality of a psychopathic rule follower is a… generalized misanthropy. The Coens want Mattie to be the star of their story because they like the fact that she thinks she’s BETTER THAN other humans. I don’t think I would be stretching Mattie’s truth to say she thinks she constitutes an IMPROVEMENT over other humans.

Mattie has such high regard for Rule she will condemn another human as trash if he fails to adhere to a mere convention. The Coens love her for this.

Fortunately, they are saved from themselves by… their other selves. If [and the more I read the more I see this as certain] the thing that stares back at you from the bottom of a really good Coen Brothers script is contempt, then the thing that keeps me from despising them as Artists is that I feel this contempt is all encompassing. They feel it for themselves as Artists as much as they feel it for us as Audience.

Rooster Cogburn, the protagonist of True Grit, can help us see why this is so.

Rooster is an Old, Washed-Up, Drunken, Ex-Confederate, man whom we meet STUCK ON THE JAKES. He is so far removed from anything heroic, that [initially] he could count as a premise in the argument for the misanthropic tendencies of the brothers. And yet, by the end of the script [pages 106-107]:

The horrible noises coming from the horse end with a gunshot.
Rooster reenters to pick up Mattie but she screams at him and
claws at his face, opening fresh gashes.

He ducks his head as best he can to avoid the claws but that
is the extent of his reaction.

He presents his back and she relents, clasping her arms. He
rises with a pained wheeze and he starts jogging with Mattie

Bouncing at his shoulder, she twists to look back.
In the dark, the darker shape of the dead horse, growing

Mattie turns forward again, eyes drooping.



Rooster is loudly wheezing as he carries Mattie before him
now, his jog slowed to an unsteady walk. Her eyes are
opening again.

They are now on a proper dirt road. Rooster staggers around
a turn and does a barely controlled stumble to his knees, and
then sits heavily back, Mattie in his lap.

Up ahead is the front porch of Bagby’s store, the building

Rooster sits gasping.

Rooster takes out his gun, weakly raises his arm, and fires
into the air. He sits panting.

I have grown old.

The door of the distant store opens and someone emerges,
holding a lamp, peering out into the dark.


The Coens end up allowing Rooster a moment of [unassailably] true heroism. There is no stain of misanthropy on his actions. Compare this moment to the last minutes of screen time given to Leboeuf [page 104]:

I must get you to a doctor, sis, or
you are not going to make it.
(to LeBoeuf)
The girl is snakebit. We are off.

He swings up behind her and nods down to LeBoeuf.

. . . I am in your debt for that
shot, pard.

Never doubt the Texash Ranger.

Rooster reins the horse around and spurs it. LeBouef shouts

. . . Ever shtalwart!

which, without question, pokes fun at this character’s heroism in a decidedly misanthropic way.

Placing Leboeuf’s ending scene of heroism against Cogburn’s ending scene of heroism allows the most important difference between their scenes to precipitate. The Coen’s treat Cogburn’s heroism seriously. Most probably, they do this in spite of themselves.

I think I can even justify that “most probably” from the previous paragraph with a quote from the text. You see, the Coen’s may have allowed Rooster his moment, but they could not refrain from letting Mattie [who digs him up and brings him to her FAMILY plot, mind you] get in the last joke in the script at Rooster’s expense. From page 108:

He said he was travelling with a
Wild West Show, getting older and
fatter. Would I like to see him
when the show came to Memphis and
swap stories with an old trailmate?
He would understand if the journey
were too long. Brief though his
note was, it was rife with

Based on all of this, I am willing to hazard that True Grit is the least thematically consistent Brothers script I’ve yet read. There is, in the relationship between Rooster and Mattie, a possibility for human companionship which has no analogue in any of the seven other scripts I’ve read from them. This possibility is incredibly small, both characters run from it for 25 years, and then death intervenes before it can be expressed, but in True Grit:

Love is possible.

And no number of misspellings can unwrite that.

10 out of 10 points.

4. Is there (a) anything unique in the story being told or (b) in the writing itself? (each part worth 5 points)

Part A) I don’t see any way to give the Brother’s much credit for the uniqueness of their story. This is just a revenge story with a 14 year old girl. I suppose the fact that it features a 14 year old girl instead of John Wick is unique. I suppose…

2 out of 5 points.

Part B) The writing in this script isn’t going to bowl anyone over either. This isn’t Fargo or Blood Simple. On the other hand, the characterization [itself] would probably get an unknown writer a job were this that unknown writer’s spec. Based on that:

4 out of 5 points.

5. Are we inspired, for however brief a time, to live in harmony with the theme of the script? (10 points)

For some reason [unknown to me] this ballooned into the longest review I’ve ever written. In words, it is half as long as the script it means to explicate. I think I went to all this trouble for a story which didn’t even move me on a visceral level because I was so damn happy the Brothers Coen wrote this script. Without a script like this in their corpus a critic like me will be tempted [when he sums all his reviews up into a meta-statement about the Brothers which will serve as prologue to the book link he will eventually post] to dismiss them as Pranksters Without A Cause. Misanthropy is fertile ground on which to build a career—they have proved this dramatically–but, you cannot be DEVOTED misanthropes and still make Art. Those premises are in contradiction.

The Brothers should thank their humanist selves for allowing this script to percolate through their contempt.

7 out of 10 points.

Total Score: 82


2 responses to “True Grit (3)

  1. Hey Joel, I am so enjoying your critical journey through the Coens oeuvre, and I feel like you’re uncovering some new and interesting insight on what makes them tick.

    Do you think the fact that in the world of True Grit that “Love is possible” means that the Coens are evolving as artists in some way?

    I may have mentioned this before but I’ve always though the unifying element in the Coens work was a simple “Humans are absurd.” But the thing that always drew me to it in their work is that it never felt fully misanthropic to me…I feel the love there, too.

    • I would like to lay all these reviews end to end and see what suggests itself to me in terms of evolution. In a straightforward way, I would say yes. Then I remember Inside Llewyn Davis came after True Grit and I’m less sure. Right now, it seems to me there is just that pendulum you pointed to in your comment. I feel like the Brothers swing between the ideas that “humans are absurd” AND humans are worth celebrating, even if it is only as a quintessence.

      I owe these guys quite a bit in terms of my how they codified my reviewing method. I hope I have paid them back a little bit with some decent refabrication :)

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