The Coen brothers are the moral philosophers of American film. They have one subject: moral accounting. That’s why no matter what genre they seem to work in, they’re always doing crime stories.
The classic crime story is a heavyweight fight between a master criminal and a master cop. The middle of the story has an intense punch/counter-punch as each takes his best shots. When one wins at the end, usually the cop, we get the pleasure of a good heavyweight fight.
That’s fine for a lot of screenwriters. But the Coens have always known that you have to transcend your genre, because then your script or film is not only more popular, it has a chance to be great.
A transcendent crime story isn’t just about catching a criminal. It’s about tallying up what is owed over the course of a lifetime, with life and death consequences. The Coen’s Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, No Country for Old Men and True Grit all play out this brutal accounting system.
True Grit is set in the old west, but it’s not a Western. The classic Western is all about nation building, transforming wilderness into civilization. Shane is a classic Western.
True Grit is crime in western clothes. Tom Chaney has murdered a girl’s father and he must pay with his life. The law is supposed to handle the moral accounting in society. But this time the law fails. So it falls to headstrong, 14-year-old Mattie to make sure the job is done. This gives the film a clear, strong desire line. And that is a crucial benefit when the hero and her allies, Marshall Rooster Cogburn and Agent LaBoeuf, go on a journey to track the killer down.
Accounting is also central to Mattie’s plan. This film is filled with bargaining. She’s a ferocious bargainer for her father’s horses. And she refuses to let Rooster shirk his responsibility. This is the deal we made, she insists, and you must keep your word.
Though essentially a crime story, True Grit uses the myth structure, with its series of tests on the road, to unfold the story and play out the accounting. As in the best myth stories, the hero brings her “family” – Rooster and LaBoeuf – along for the ride. The dramatic opposition comes from the series of bad guys they must fight on the road.
But the most important opposition thematically is within the family. Each conflict with the bad guys allows the family members to tally up his or her proper payment to the others. The true endpoint of the story is not whether they bring Tom Chaney to justice. It is whether these three main characters – Mattie, Rooster and LaBoeuf – will come to understand the true worth of each of the others.
In the final scene, Mattie has one last payment she must make to old Rooster. She can’t make it, and for someone with such a strong moral code this is tragic. It’s not the ending we want in this movie. But it’s the ending the movie has to have.
The Coens never sermonize. Their knowledge of the screenwriting craft is too great for that. Study True Grit and the rest of the Coen canon to learn how to convert your moral vision into characters and plot. Those techniques are one of the main ways you tell the world that you are a master of the craft.