The Coen Project Part 15: True Grit

While the Coen version of True Grit is structurally a straightforward Western, on a deeper level it engages with a type of narrative that the directors had never attempted before — the coming-of-age story.

I’ll admit that I was dragging my feet a little bit getting myself to re-watch and think about True Grit (again, I really want to get to Hail Caesar), which if memory serves I saw for the first time in theaters my senior year of high school. I remember little of my reaction, but it was likely the perfect Coen film for that time in my life. While the Coen version of True Grit is structurally a straightforward Western, on a deeper level it engages with a type of narrative that the directors had never attempted before — the coming-of-age story.

A well-known version of True Grit was released in 1969, starring John Wayne and helmed by prolific genre director Henry Hathaway, but it would be a mistake to categorize the Coens’ 2010 release as a remake. In an interview, Ethan stated that they hadn’t seen the prior film since its release when they were kids, and that its existence was “kind of an irrelevancy” to their desire to adapt Charles Portis’ original novel. This is a statement that only Joel or Ethan Coen could make without coming off as a total asshole.


Their writing approach for True Grit was similar to their adaptation method for No Country for Old Men — faithful to the story that they loved on the page. They adhered closer to the novel than Hathaway’s version, bringing the story’s point of view back to the young woman who seeks revenge for her father’s death.

Critics at the time seemed almost baffled by True Grit’s straightforwardness: Roger Ebert noted that it wasn’t ”eccentric, quirky, wry or flaky”. I have no idea what it means for a movie to be “flaky”, but he’s correct in that True Grit is the Coens’ most unsubverted genre exercise. It proves beyond any doubt that the directors don’t rely on any of their genre-morphing weirdness to make their movies entertaining. They’re just that good.

The setup is simple: fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross’s father has been killed by a man in his employ, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Local law enforcement in Fort Smith, Arkansas has made no effort to accost the murderer, so Mattie takes matters into her own hands, enlisting the services of an old and drunk U.S. Marshall named Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to help her find Chaney. Already on the hunt is Texas Ranger LaBeouf (Matt Damon), who is attempting to track down and arrest Chaney for prior crimes in his jurisdiction.

Like many coming-of-age films, True Grit’s success hinges on the performance of a very young actress, in this case Hailee Steinfeld, who at thirteen was about the same age her character during filming. The Coens are lucky that their nationwide search for such a precocious kid payed off — Steinfeld is able to play Mattie as smart and determined without coming off as an neurotic do-gooder. A slightly lesser actress could have made the film work as a Western, but it’s Steinfeld’s subtlety that makes True Grit work as a coming-of-age story and nabbed her a best supporting actress nomination in the process.

I think that there are essentially two types of coming-of-age stories: one having to do with sexuality and one having to do with mortality. The ones about mortality are less common, and when done well are in my opinion the more universal and impactful version. While it wraps its coming-of-age narrative in a standard Western revenge plot, the emotional core of the Coens’ True Grit is comprised of Mattie’s journey towards an understanding of death.

Most mortality coming-of-age stories lead up to an experience of death towards the end, but in True Grit the pivotal death happens upfront. For someone who has just lost a parent at a young age, Mattie is oddly devoid of emotion. She goes about the arrangements for her father’s avengement with a strange sense of ruthless enjoyment, manipulating everyone in her path to her advantage. She’s driven not by grief or even anger, but by obligation — killing your father’s murderer is just the done thing in 1870’s Arkansas. Her behavior isn’t really stoicism, it’s a lack of understanding of what has just happened to her.

The harrowing finality of death isn’t real to Mattie until she’s tasked with cutting a hanged man down from a tree along the trail that she and Rooster are traveling. The man’s face is decayed beyond recognition. She cuts the rope suspending the corpse and watches as it slams unceremoniously onto the ground below. Before Mattie can come down from the tree, Rooster has sold off the body to a passing horseman. When Mattie asks what happened, Rooster explains that neither he nor the horseman knew the dead man, but that “it is a dead body, possibly worth something in trade”.  The incident doesn’t have a major plot significance, but we can see the wheels turning in Mattie’s head — life is fragile, death is anonymizing. Again, Steinfeld’s performance is what makes this scene’s emotional content land.


Killing soon loses its glamour, too. When Mattie finally comes face-to-face with Chaney, she has the jarring realization that the man who killed her father is a human being. He has plenty of his own problems, only one of which is Mattie. “Everything is against me. Now I am shot by a child,” he laments. This is not exactly the face of evil that Mattie was looking forward to courageously defeating. Doling out death is only palatable when you’re able to dehumanize your victim, and in a stark contrast to No Country’s villainous Anton Chigurh, Chaney is about as human as they come. 

Mattie does ultimately kill Chaney, but nearly at the cost of her own life.  The kick of the rifle knocks her into a rocky pit where she’s bitten by a poisonous snake. With death all around her and the value of life seeming less and less significant, the lengths to which Rooster goes to save her humbles Mattie, striking the final blow to her former flippancy in the face of mortality. More death doesn’t fix death — only love can do that. 

Stray Observations:

  • The pronunciation of LaBeouf’s name, LaBeef, cracked me up every single time it was spoken.
  • Side note — If  I hear one more critic refer to a modern genre film, especially a Western, as “gritty” I will fully lose my mind.


The Coen Project Part 2: Raising Arizona

After seeing Blood Simple, you’d be likely to peg Joel and Ethan Coen simply as promising writer-directors of drama. Three years later (1987), you’d be proven very wrong. When the brothers set out to make their second film, their primary goal was to create something as different from their debut as possible. Since Blood Simple was dark and realistic, the obvious choice of direction was a comedy. Enter Raising Arizona. 

At least in the context of film and television, the American Southwest often feels like blank slate where anything can happen. Maybe it’s the literal blankness of the desert, maybe it’s the heat, maybe it’s the sparseness of population. Could you imagine Breaking Bad taking place in, say, Boston? New Mexico and Arizona are places where you can believe a high school teacher getting away with selling meth, or a young couple stealing a baby to cope with infertility. It’s the perfect place to stage a comedy about crazy people doing crazy things.

With a bigger but still modest budget of $5 million to work with, Joel and Ethan don’t waste a single frame: an eleven-minute voice-over sequence packs in an entire act of narrative before the opening credits even roll. We’re introduced to convenience store robber H.I. “Hi” McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) who meets police officer Edwina (Holly Hunter) while having his mug shot taken. Over the course of several repeat offences, the pair fall for each other and marry after Hi gets out of jail and vows to keep on the straight and narrow. They decide that they should have a child, reasoning that “…every day we kept a child out of the world was a day he might later regret having missed.” Alas, Ed is infertile: “her insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase,” laments Hi.

Devastated by their rejection from adoption agencies due to Hi’s delinquency, the unhappy couple hear an interesting news flash: local furniture mogul Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson) and his wife Florence (Lynne Kitei)  have welcomed quintuplets. Hi and Ed figure that since five is a lot of children, the parents would not “overly” miss one. They head out to get them a baby, and the insanity that follows never lets up.

In my last post I talked a little bit about cartoons, and how they’re typically driven by characters rather than situations. The live-action comedies that I enjoy the most take a similar approach, turning a handful oddballs loose in some environment and seeing how they bounce off of each other.  Raising Arizona does this in a more literally cartoony way than a typical comedy. Many of the characters play on cartoon archetypes: Hi is a human Wile E. Coyote, disheveled and running around the desert, a constant victim of his own ineptitude. John Goodman and William Forsythe play Hi’s pals Gale and Evelle, a pair of prison escapees who aren’t far off from trouble-making cartoon duos like Ren and Stimpy or Pinky and the Brain, although Goodman comes off more Foghorn Leghorn than anything else. Hell, the baby quints even have cartoon names: Harry, Barry, Larry, Garry, and Nathan Jr (he’s an awful damn good one).

In stark contrast to Blood Simple’s naturalistic dialog, the characters all have eccentric ways of speaking, a mix of hick talk with solemnly biblical proclamations. The juxtaposition of lower-class criminals speaking in such a heightened manner drives much of the film’s humor. In an interview the Coens said that the dialog sprang from a mix of regional dialect and what they imagined these people would be reading, namely the newspaper and the Bible. 

Although little Nathan Jr. is the MacGuffin that drives the action, Raising Arizona’s central conflict isn’t really about a baby, it’s about Hi’s struggle between what he believes to be his innate criminal nature and his desire to become stable and respectable, motivated by his love of Ed. Maybe the funniest way this inner battle plays out is the scene where he expounds upon how he’s a changed man while simultaneously shoving several firearms into his pants. He just can’t help himself. 

It might be worth talking about why Hi and his menacing biker antagonist Leonard Smalls (Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb) share the same Woody Woodpecker tattoo. I’m wary about delving into speculation about certain symbols within the Coen Brothers’ films, mostly because from what I’ve read they tend not to put as much specific meaning into them as their fans would like to believe. That said, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that Smalls is a manifestation of Hi’s criminal side. A lot of people online suggest that Smalls is actually Hi’s father or brother, but that kind of enters the realm of fan theory.  I just love the fact that it’s Woody Woodpecker, because it’s an explicit cartoon reference in a deliberately cartoony movie.


Stray Observations:

  • The Coens had originally planned to film The Hudsucker Proxy next, but the budget it would’ve required was too large for their studio. If you look closely at the jumpsuits worn at Hi’s job, you can see a “Hudsucker Industries” label.
  • I love the emergence of the Coen’s tendency to repeat a certain phrase or word over and over, like “sombitch” and Nathan Arizona’s incessant use of “butt”.
  • Is it just me, or is Gale and Evelle’s emergence from the mud outside of the prison eerily similar the spawning of the Uruk-hai in Lord of the Rings ?
  • Favorite moment: Ed feeling the need to blare her police siren while rushing to inform Hi that she’s “barren”.