It would be rather pointless to write a review for a film that has been out for much more than a year, so this is more of an appreciation. I’ve seen most of the films produced by the Coen Brothers, and have a few of them among my top ten favorites of certain years. I watched True Grit for the second time this past week, and while I enjoyed the story and visuals as much as I did the first time around, the thing that sticks with me most is the dialogue. It’s reason enough to watch it again.
We’ve seen so many recent westerns that, if you stripped the dialogue of a certain four-letter word, they would essentially be silents. I can’t believe (or maybe just don’t want to believe) that our forbears were actually so ignorant. I don’t see it in Dickens, Twain or Poe. I don’t see it in Zane Gray, and he wrote almost exclusively about the old West. I’m not prudish, just not willing to believe that everyone in the old West crawled out of a language cesspool.
Since it was an adaptation, and since I have not read the book on which it was based, I don’t really know how much of the dialogue in True Grit was originated by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. But I suspect that a great deal of it was of their creation, and, even if not, they chose to put dialogue from the novel into their film. For that I wanted to say thanks.
Here’s an example: one dialogue passage that's just great. In one of their first meetings, after exhibiting her street savvy to Rooster Cogburn by rolling a cigarette for him, young Mattie reveals her plans to deal with the bad guy who killed her father.
MATTIE: There is a fugitive warrant out for Chaney. The government will pay you two dollars for bringing him in plus ten cents a mile for each of you. On top of that I will pay you a fifty dollar reward.
Cogburn gazes at her.
COGBURN: What are you? (looks at the flour sack she holds) What’ve you got there in your poke?
She opens it. Cogburn smiles.
COGBURN: By God! A Colt’s dragoon! Why, you’re no bigger than a corn nubbin, what’re you doing with a pistol like that?
MATTIE: I intend to kill Tom Chaney with it if the law fails to do so.
COGBURN: Well, that piece will do the job—if you can find a high stump to rest it on and a wall to put behind you.
MATTIE: Nobody here knew my father, and I am afraid nothing much is going to be done about Chaney except I do it. My brother is a child and my mother is indecisive and hobbled by grief.
COGBURN: I don’t believe you have fifty dollars.
MATTIE: I will shortly. I have a contract with Colonel Stonehill which he will make payment on tomorrow or the next day, once a lawyer countersigns.
COGBURN: I don’t believe fairy tales or sermons or stories about money, baby sister. But thank you for the cigarette.
“My mother is indecisive and hobbled by grief”? OK, maybe presumptuous for a fourteen-year-old. But isn’t it refreshing to hear a movie character speak so intelligently? This language is like music. It elevates the material, and it certainly elevates a scene (necessary to move the plot forward) that could have been strictly expositional.
It’s like that through the entire film. True Grit was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay in both the Academy Awards and the Writers Guild Awards. There's obviously a lot more that goes into a screenplay than just dialogue, but it's not an insignificant part. True Grit lost both contests to The Social Network. Too bad. It deserved to win.