True Grit

Longtime readers of this journal will not be surprised to learn that I enjoyed the new Coen Bros movie True Grit.  I’ve seen the movie twice now and find it superlative.  In some ways it is their most straightforward, conventional script — easily-identified protagonist, easily-identified act breaks, lovingly crafted script work.  The acting, while excellent, does not have the eccentricity and oddness of past movies, and the direction is similarly classical.  And yet, like all Coen movies, it hangs in the mind in a way other movies don’t.

Analysis will follow soon, so please hie thee to your nearest theater at your earliest convenience.


6 Responses to “True Grit
  1. My husband and I have missed the last couple of Coen Bros. films, but this one has really piqued our interest and is at the top of our list for movies to see (assuming we don’t follow through on our tentative plan to get completely smashed and go see Yogi Bear.) We’ll likely see it in the next week or two, and I’m looking forward to your analysis almost as much as the film itself.

  2. Todd says:

    For my part, I’d get completely smashed and just stay home before ruining a perfectly good drunk with Yogi Bear.

  3. Ethan says:

    I would argue that both Matt Damon and Josh Brolin make acting choices that skew toward the eccentric and odd. I mean that in the greatest way.

  4. McBoing Boing says:

    We saw it at the Ziegfeld yesterday.
    I was surprised by how straight forward it was, but it was certainly a Coen Bros. movie.
    I’m looking forward to hearing your breakdown…

  5. I saw it Friday and of course liked it a lot (it’s a Coen Bros. film, how could I not like it?)
    It’s been a long while since I saw the John Wayne version and have never read the book so I can only really critique it on it’s own. Loved the look and characters but I especially loved the language! The dialogue using the particular way of speaking that those of that era used was truly captured here. Makes me want to read the book now.

  6. Eric says:

    Not on the subject of True Grit…

    I just watched the StarTrek film from 2009 and took a shot at an Alcottian analysis of the structure. I then checked your archives to see if you had analyzed it yourself, so I could see what you caught and I missed, but it seems you haven’t written about it. And since you hated the first version back in 1980, you may never see it at all. So even though I wrote this as an exercise for myself, I’ll just leave this here, in this unrelated month-old comment thread, why not?


    Star Trek has a pretty interesting structure: Prologue, four acts, epilogue, but with two protagonists who are also each others’ antagonist.

    Who are the protagonists? There are two, Kirk and Spock, although Kirk definitely gets more of the focus. They also wind up being two sides of the same coin: Kirk is all Heart and doesn’t listen to his Head, and Spock is all Head and is trying to suppress his Heart. (From Dr. Bettelheim’s perspective, we would say that they were the two sides of one character, the Legendary Starship Captain. From a Hegelian Dialectics perspective you could say that Spock is the thesis, Kirk is the antithesis, and the Legendary Starship Captain is the synthesis, but that’s not the direction this analysis is going.) There’s also a special guest protagonist in the prologue, George Kirk.

    What do the protagonists want? Kirk wants to journey from being an irresponsible fuck-up to being a Legendary Starship Captain, like his father. Spock wants to be the best damn Vulcan he can be, to prove that having a human mother isn’t a hindrance… But really his journey is about helping Kirk to Legendary Starship Captain status. Kirk and Spock start out throwing obstacles in each others’ way, but surmounting those obstacles result in both achieving their goals.

    Why does Kirk want to become a Legendary Starship Captain? To be worthy of his Legendary Starship Captain father. From a more meta standpoint, it’s to be worthy of the original James T. Kirk, a figure who looms gigantic in our popular culture. In the minds of fans who have loved Star Trek all their lives, this newcomer had better be worthy of the name James T. Kirk.

    Prologue (0:00–11:30): You could call this chapter “Kirk tries to be born,” but since he’s in utero, he makes for a pretty passive protagonist. Instead, his father George Kirk fills in as temporary protagonist, and his task is “Save Kirk so he can be born.”

    George Kirk is the First Officer on the NCC Kelvin, which is investigating a mysterious lightning storm in space. An evil-looking ship emerges from the storm and disables the Kelvin. Its captain, Nero, demands a visit from the Kelvin’s captain, leaving George Kirk in charge.

    Nero is looking for Old Spock, for reasons unexplained. The Kelvin’s captain is no help so Nero kills him and attacks the Kelvin.

    George Kirk knows there’s no way to survive this battle, so he orders the evacuation of the ship. Turns out his pregnant wife is on board, and she’s going to give birth any moment (two ticking clocks in one!). She, and the rest of the crew, make it onto shuttles; James T. Kirk is born; and George rams the Kelvin into the evil ship to allow the shuttles to make their escape, killing himself in the process.

    Act I (11:31–28:12): This chapter could be called “Get Kirk (and Spock) into Starfleet.” Kirk’s journey in this act sort of matches up with Luke’s in Act I of Star Wars. Kirk grows up in Iowa (Tatooine). He’s bored and rebellious – As a child he runs his stepfather’s antique car into a ravine. Years later he sees and falls for Starfleet cadet Uhura (Leia). Pursuing her, he gets beaten up by other Starfleet cadets (Tusken Raiders), but they are driven off by Captain Pike (Obi-Wan). Pike tells Kirk he was the son of a great man, is destined for greatness if he takes up training, and the galaxy needs him. The act ends with Kirk enlisting with Starfleet and leaving Ohio in a shuttle, and the act break is clearly announced with a title card reading “Three years later.”

    These scenes are interwoven with Spock’s journey. As a child, we see him studying advanced equations (showing that he’s all about the Head, whereas Kirk at this age was stealing cars and listening to the Beastie Boys– all passionate Heart). Some other Vulcan kids tease him for being half-human and therefore emotional. He proves them right by beating one of them up. He asks his father why he married a human and he responds that it was the logical thing to do, as Ambassador to the humans. Years later, Spock decides to go full-Vulcan and purge his emotions. He studies hard and is accepted to the prestigious Vulcan Science Academy. When the Academy insults his half-human heritage, he gets pissed off (so un-Vulcan-like) and decides to join Starfleet instead. (Or maybe joining Starfleet was his plan all along, and he applied to the Science Academy just so he could reject them. Either way, pretty petty.)

    Act II (28:13–1:11:44): This chapter could be called “Get Kirk (and Spock) on the Enterprise.” In his drive to become a starship captain, Kirk cheats on the Kobayashi Maru test. Turns out this test was designed by Spock. They’re only just now about to meet for the first time, but they’re already messing with each others’ goals: Spock’s impossible test is foiling Kirk, so Kirk reprograms the test and foils Spock’s training methods. Spock tattles on Kirk, and they confront each other for the first time at a disciplinary hearing (guest starring Tyler Perry). But suddenly! A distress signal is received from the planet Vulcan, and all cadets are to report for starship duty. But oh no, they won’t let Kirk go, because of that whole cheating thing. McCoy cheats in his own way to get Kirk aboard the Enterprise, through liberal applications of slapstick comedy.

    Once aboard, Kirk hears about the lightning storm in space (42:56), realizes this is a harbinger of Nero, and warns Pike. At Vulcan they encounter Nero and his evil ship, which is drilling a hole into Vulcan. Nero notices this ship is the Enterprise, Spock’s ship, and demands the captain come aboard. Pike obliges, though not before making Spock captain and Kirk First Officer. Kirk has succeeded in becoming part of the Enterprise’s crew, though he is immediately made to jump out of a shuttle to disable Nero’s drill. He succeeds, but it’s too late – Nero drops a bomb into the hole, and Vulcan is destroyed. Nero takes off with Pike. Kirk and Spock butt heads over the next step: Kirk wants to rescue Pike (Heart), Spock wants to do the logical thing and join up with the rest of Starfleet (Head). The disagreement becomes physical, and Spock has Kirk shot out of the ship in a pod, onto a nearby ice planet. Talk about Act II low point! One protagonist’s planet destroyed, the other protagonist abandoned in the wastes with no way to get back on the ship.

    Spock’s journey through this act is mostly intertwined with Kirk’s above, but he gets an important sequence for his arc. Vulcan is imploding, and it’s up to him to beam down to the surface and save some sort of Vulcan Cultural Committee that just happens to have his parents as members. As they’re beaming back up, Spock’s mother falls off the cliff and dies. Now Spock, who has put so much effort into suppressing his human side, literally loses his human side in the form of his mother. (Lowering his Act II low point even further.) Still, Spock mostly suppresses any emotional response to his loss, continuing to be the good Vulcan.

    Also, there’s an interesting inversion of the story of George Kirk. In Act I, Pike tells James Kirk that George was a captain for only twelve minutes but saved 800 lives, and dares James to do better. Spock was captain for only twelve minutes or so before he lost 6 billion lives.

    Since this act is twice as long as any other, I suspect it should actually be two acts, though structurally, it seems to work as just one. I will note that midway through this act is when Kirk becomes First Officer, but since this happens as he walking to his space jump, it doesn’t feel like an act break. Another thought is that it could be considered three sub-chapters: Kirk gets on the Enterprise as a stowaway, Kirk gets made First Officer, Kirk gets booted off.

    Act III (1:11:46–1:34:50): This act could be called “Get Kirk to be the captain of the Enterprise.” Abandoned on the ice planet, Kirk journeys across the wastes, heading for a Starfleet outpost. Along the way he gets attacked by baby Cloverfields and runs into a cave that coincidentally happens to contain Alternate-Universe Spock. Alt-Spock then proceeds to just hand everything to Kirk, resolving all his obstacles with the knowledge that being from the future brings. He informs Kirk about what exactly is happening and who Nero is. He tells Kirk that he will one day be a Legendary Starship Captain. He tells him that he’ll get there by being great friends with Spock. He tells him how to break Spock down and get him out of the way so that Kirk can be captain. And then he happens to have the formula to allow Kirk to beam onto the Enterprise even though it’s traveling at warp speed. Alt-Spock is basically an early Deus Ex Machina. Thanks to him, by the end of the act, Kirk is Captain of the Enterprise, ready to pursue Nero and bring things to a close.

    Though Kirk is now a Starship Captain, he’s not Legendary status yet – because he doesn’t yet have Spock by his side. This is shown by an exchange between Uhura and Kirk. She says, “I hope you know what you’re doing, captain.” He responds, “So do I.” He’s unsure because he’s making his decisions with all Heart and no Head to temper it.

    As for Spock, at the beginning of the act he’s doing his Captain thing, going to rejoin Starfleet. Then Kirk shows up again like a bad penny, and goads Spock into losing his shit by accusing him of never loving his mother. Spock realizes that he’s “emotionally compromised” (a description he probably would have applied to himself all his life), and steps down as captain. He wanders into the transporter room (the one his mother never made it back to), and his father shows up for a pep talk. His father admits that he married Spock’s mother out of love, giving Spock permission to feel emotion and still be a good Vulcan. His personal journey is now over, which frees him to team up with Kirk in the next act, put Head and Heart together, and create the Legendary Starship Captain.

    Note that the only reason Kirk met Alt-Spock and so got over on regular Spock is that regular Spock shot Kirk onto the ice planet. So Spock’s biggest obstacle for Kirk turned out being the biggest boost in his journey. Also note that the only reason Spock was able to get his pep-talk from his father and come to grips with his emotional nature is that Kirk goaded him into an emotionally-compromising outburst. So Kirk’s biggest obstacle for Spock turned out to be the biggest boost in his journey.

    Act IV (1:34:51–1:53:02): This chapter can be called “Kirk (and Spock) become legendary.” They need to do this by working together to save the day. This is the “race to the finish,” so there’s not much in terms of protagonist journey. They hear Nero is on his way to Earth. They sneak up on him (by hiding behind Saturn). Kirk and Spock beam onto his ship together, rescue Pike, and destroy Nero and his ship, thus saving Earth and the Federation. Legendary status cemented! Also, now that Spock is fully in touch with his Heart, he can make out with Uhura at length.

    The Epilogue (1:53:03–1:58:13): Time to pat ourselves on the back and put all the toys back in the box until the sequel. Kirk gets the glory, the medal, the Enterprise and his crew. Spock runs into Alt-Spock, who convinces him to stick with Starfleet and Kirk. Spock joins the Enterprise as First Officer, and the ship embarks on its next journey, with Alt-Spock intoning Kirk’s pre-credit mantra from the original TV series.

    Fathers and sons. Any Alcottian analysis would view this movie through the filter of fathers and sons, and there’s a lot of that in Star Trek. Kirk is born just before his father dies, but later follows in his footsteps. He destroys his abusive stepfather’s car by driving it into certain destruction, like his father did with the Kelvin, though jumping out at the last minute, like his father couldn’t. Pike becomes Kirk’s substitute father, and Kirk practically hijacks the Enterprise to save him. Kirk twice assumes command of Pike’s ship, once in the heat of battle and once officially, replacing his father figure. Pike’s last words to Kirk are “Your father would be proud.”

    Meanwhile, Spock, as a child, is inspired to suppress his emotions by something his father said. As an adult, he resolves his issues when his father admits he was lying (though he doesn’t admit that in so many words). Spock manages to save his father from death but not his mother. He perpetuates his father’s mistakes by carrying on with a human woman. And in the epilogue, he confuses his older self for his father.

    And finally, Nero is driven to his universe-hopping, mass-murdering, planet-destroying rage by the death of his wife and unborn child. It’s interesting that the only three characters in this movie who seem to have any family at all are Kirk, Spock, and Nero.