Spoilers, I’m sure.
I’m not surprised that “Little Fockers” outdid “True Grit” in box office receipts, but unlike many bemoaning this, I’m fairly certain that isn’t a final indictment on our national inability to have any taste whatsoever. After all, we did, as a nation, embrace “Fargo”, which is the movie most like “True Grit” in both character and plot. I believe the main reason that “Little Fockers” did better is that people go to the movies for one reason above all others around the Christmas holiday, which is that if they have to spend one more moment in the house with their families, trying to entertain each other, they will lose their minds. So they want to go to the movie, but they have to bring the whole family, and if that includes little kids and overly sensitive family members, you’re going to go for pablum you know will suck over a movie that has “probably has sex/discomforting violence” written all over it. And that’s “True Grit”, which, true to Coen brothers history, is heavy on the violence but doesn’t actually have much in the way of sex in it. Which is good, due to the fact that the main character is a 14-year-old girl.
By the way, have I mentioned that this is quite the feminist film? It even passes the Bechdel test, though it takes place in a world where women are extremely marginalized, and part of the movie rests on exploring the marginalization of women in this world. (It passes it in discussions between main character Mattie and a woman who runs a boarding house—their conversations are strictly about another woman and some dead bodies.) The main character is Mattie Ross, who is a cross between Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz” and Marge from “Fargo”—intelligent, calm, thorough, but with a real curiosity and desire for adventure.
This movie also interrogates masculinity in a way that’s increasingly trendy in Hollywood, with shows like “Mad Men” and movies like “The Social Network”, but it does all that and puts an interesting female character at the center of it. They prove it can be done!
Indeed, I’d say the movie is, above all other things, an exploration of how the breakdown of civilization works for women whose talents and ambitions are far greater than patriarchy ever allows for women to express. On the surface, Mattie’s world is one of severe repression of women, a world where women are basically sex objects and workhorses, but not seen as real human beings. Matt Damon’s character, the Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf, works to show exactly how little room women could be given. He can’t put her in the “sex object” category because of her youth and her unwillingness to entertain him, and so he puts her into the “unruly woman who needs to be put in her place” category, but that ends up not working out very well for him, either. Because once they go into the Indian territory, outside of the reach of traditional Western civilization, the usual rules are suspended. And that includes the rule where any man outranks and has the right to control any woman. That’s why this movie is part “Fargo”—because it’s built around a woman seeking a murder to bring him to justice—and part “Wizard of Oz”. The usual restraints on a young teenage girl don’t count anymore in this world beyond the reach of the social order she’s used to. Mattie is riot grrrl 130 years ahead of her time.
In case the feminist themes of this movie weren’t obvious from the get-go, there’s actually a parody of the spanking scene in “McLintock”. The original “True Grit” was a John Wayne movie, of course, but this movie is more interested in interrogating and parodying the John Wayne-type image of masculinity than it is reinstating the myth. The idea of spanking women to control them was a reoccurring theme in the 50s and 60s, and it was pretty much played for comedy and titillation every time. In this movie, it’s horrifying and completely unfair—it’s clear that LaBoeuf is spanking Mattie because he can’t best her intellectually or sexually, and so he’s been reduced to trying to beat her physically. He’s a fool and a coward, in other words. Rooster, played by Jeff Bridges, respects Mattie and echoes our anger and annoyance at anyone who can’t see this young woman as the respect-deserving person she is.
Overall, the film is unbelievably well-made. Well, believable because this is the Coen brothers and this is basically their favorite theme, which is a misfit or a band of misfits on a journey of discovery. It’s the plot of “Fargo”, “O Brother Where Art Thou”, “Raising Arizona”, “The Big Lebowski”, and “No Country For Old Men”, and probably a bunch others I’m not thinking of right now. They tell the same story over and over, and it’s always interesting and fresh. Sometimes it’s broad comedy and sometimes it’s very serious, and I think it works better as comedy. But since they’ve told this one story over and over, the pacing of it is absolutely perfect. I can’t even say why I always am willing to go along on the ride, since I know that there will be two major revelations by the end of it: 1) The world is a dark, violent place where brutality is absurdly common and sense can never be made of it and 2) Yet, there are good people who live nobly despite understanding the brutality of life, and therein lies hope. The coda to “Raising Arizona”, I’ve said many a time, basically makes explicit this overriding theme of the Coen brothers’ work.
Maybe it’s because this theme matters more than any other. It’s one of the greatest themes of life and literature. But it’s almost never told well. It’s either too dark and depressing and hopeless, or it’s too sappy and unconvincing. They always strike a balance, probably by making the quietly noble characters very quiet and humble indeed, with the most extreme example being The Dude, who is a broke motherfucker with literally no ambition greater than bowling well. They celebrate the zen of quiet living, the nobility of the common man, in a way that almost no one else does. But they also tweak who the hero is in every film, which is how they keep it interesting. In this film, the hero character is a steely 14-year-old girl, and that adds an intriguing new wrinkle. Plus, it’s hilarious and endlessly entertaining, so go see it. Even if you have to leave the overly sensitive and the little kids behind to do so.