Why Is This Coen Bros. Movie Different from All Other Coen Bros. Movies?

Two years ago, after seeing Burn After Reading, I identified the one trait that every single Coen Bros. had in common. Romantic comedy or grim film noir, suspense thriller or picaresque romp, screwball epic or journey into depression, every single Coen Bros. movie—all fourteen of them, you pick, I don’t care which one–shared one element:

They all involved characters who thought they were smarter than they were, and suffered for it.

Some of these characters were smart, only not quite as smart as they thought they were, and suffered for it.

Others of these characters were stupid, and fancied themselves smart, and suffered for it.

In True Grit, all the central characters prove just exactly as smart as they need to be, and in some cases smarter than we figured them for. Nobody (with the exception of a minor character in an early scene) does himself in or gets into deep doo-doo for the hubristic sin of overestimating his intelligence.

In all fourteen of the previous movies written and directed by the Coen Bros.—again, I defy you to find an exception—that hubristic sin plagued central (or, in the case of No Country for Old Men, important secondary) characters and drove the plot. The persistence of that element in their oeuvre, whether in stories they created or were attracted to adapting, reflected a strong misanthropic streak in the two brothers.

Many of those movies were wonderful, as misanthropy can be. But True Grit is wonderful in a whole new way for the Coen Bros. It shows that they are capable of admiration for and generosity of spirit toward the human animal, and more important, it succeeds in taking the audience on a journey into these feelings, too. It looks like a new chapter in the growth of these great and still relatively young (53 and 56) filmmakers.


4 Comments on “Why Is This Coen Bros. Movie Different from All Other Coen Bros. Movies?”

  1. rory says:

    T! One could argue that the character of Mattie does, indeed, suffer as a result of over- estimating her smarts. (Don’t want to be a spoiler here for anyone who’s not yet seen this great film- but the fangs and arrows of hubris do get her.) I agree completely with your assessment of unifying Coen Bro element- though I’m not sure if I spotted it in
    A Serious Man. Hope all is well, T! Happy New Year to you and the lovely A!

  2. Rovronr says:

    I think True Grit is a haiku by the Coen Bros. Consumate moviemaking distilled within the constraints of a well-worn form: the Western Tale.

  3. Rovronr says:

    What Ted says this
    Happy New Year blossoms
    Where Hollywood entwines Vine.

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