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February 01, 2011

True Grit: The Inversion of a Coen Brothers Movie


 **SPOILER ALERT** Don't read this if you don't want to know key plot points in the movie "True Grit," and the outcome of this weekend's Super Bowl.



Shouldn't this guy have been the protagonist of a Coen brothers version of "True Grit"?


I've read that "True Grit" is unlike other Coen brothers movies in that it's not "ironic."  As much as I'd like to resist that label, I've got to admit it rings true; it seems to be their most sincere work.  But I was struck by another, related way in which "True Grit" stands out from their other movies.


Most Coen movies have as their protagonists people who are in way, way over their heads; naïve incompetents in situations far beyond their capabilities, buffeted by forces that are either chaotic or malevolent.


And within this paradigm, many Coen movies are about a simple man, or a simpleton, who thinks he's smart enough to get away with some transgression, but the forces that line up in reaction are totally beyond what he expects or understands, and are often even supernaturally powerful.


-  In "Raising Arizona," an idiot crook hatches an idiotic plan to kidnap a baby, and is relentlessly pursued by a possibly supernaturally powerful bounty hunter.


-  In "O Brother Where Art Thou," three idiot convicts escape from prison and are relentlessly pursued throughout the film by a policeman who may or may not be the Devil.


-  In "No Country For Old Men," an ordinary guy takes money from a drug deal gone bad, and is pursued by an impossibly relentless hit man with a cattle bolt pistol.


Ordinarily, the protagonist in a Coen brothers "True Grit" movie would be Tom Chaney (played by Josh Brolin, who actually played the hapless, pursued protagonist in "No Country For Old Men"), the idiot ranch hand who kills his employer while drunk.  And told from his perspective, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) would be the relentless, hyper-competent pursuer, only occasionally glimpsed by the viewer, until the climactic conflict.


Instead, it's a movie told from the perspective of this pursuer (and his 14-year-old preternaturally capable employer).  And the designated Coen-Bros.-dumbass who gets himself in way over his head is merely a footnote at the end of the movie.


This is certainly related to Todd Alcott's observation that unlike other Coen brothers movies, in which protagonists are at the mercy of those with capital, in "True Grit," the 14 year old protagonist Mattie is the one with money, and she uses it expertly to manipulate those around her.


Focusing on bumbling protagonists who don't understand the situation/world they're in is what many would call an ironic or even nihilistic take on dramatic storytelling.  Focusing on three flawed but very competent people trying, through the filter of various motives, to do the right thing, and overcoming obstacles in order to do so, is very Western, very non-ironic, and the very inversion of a Coen brothers movie.


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