True Grit: A Model for the
Modern American Western

By James Mannarino

The box office success and critical acclaim of True Grit are welcome indications that the Western genre is not dead. 1992’s Unforgiven is the latest instance of a Western that may be considered great, with the majority of others having come out of the 1950’s and 60’s. Since 1969, there have been fewer great films of the Western genre released than of any other. While 2010’s True Grit may not go down in history as one of the greatest, it shows that potential exists for contemporary interpretations of the genre.

True Grit

The Coen Brothers adaptation of this novel is excellent; a perfect distillation of a literary work, managing to bear the droll vernacular and dry comedic flare that define the novel, while also slightly reshaping the story into a compelling Western that’s palatable for modern audiences. Where more recent westerns have fallen short, at least in regards to generating audiences, is by relying heavily on the classical model of the genre, i.e., by attempting to construct two+ hour-long celebrations of beautiful, scenic cinematography (All The Pretty Horses, The Assassination Of Jesse James, Appaloosa - to name a few. There are reasons you probably haven’t seen these films, which should and could have been…less forgettable.).

True Grit
This model worked in the 50’s and 60’s when audiences came to see striking images of the American West, shot in new widescreen formats, and hear beautiful music; both of which enveloped stories of simple characters engaged in good guys vs. bad. The appeal of these films is now esoteric and a contemporary film made up exclusively of these elements would understandably seem boring to most.

True Grit However, the Coen Brothers’ True Grit manages to maintain these elements and work them into a movie that stands more on its writing and dynamic ensemble of characters than anything else. With subdued, unobtrusive homage to the classics, such as several classic shots of riders on the horizon, one of Mattie Ross standing over graves of loved ones under a bare tree (likely a nod to Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven), and through tasteful period-piece art direction, it’s made clear that we’re watching a Western.

The work of Roger Deakins, cinematographer on Assassination of Jesse James and the vast majority of past Coen films, is masterfully understated in True Grit. It effectively conveys the expansiveness and beauty of the setting without letting it become a dominant character itself, as was the case in classical Westerns.

This isn’t to say that studios can or should churn out Westerns with the same frequency of Action films or Romantic Comedies, but True Grit has proved the potential for the Western to be a framework for compelling, and financially viable, contemporary films. There is a rich pool of Western literature (Blood Meridian please!) and historical events to draw from. Talented filmmakers need only to focus on using this material to make Westerns that are their own, instead of overly influenced, trite, and awkward period pieces.

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About The Author

James MannarinoAfter graduating from Saint Joseph's University in 2008, James Mannarino began doing freelance television production work in NYC. He had the opportunity to work with Roadside Entertainment on the ESPY Awards, as an Assistant Editor, and as a PA on The Celebrity Apprentice, among several other projects and internships.

James is currently focused on coordinating outreach strategies and establishing partnerships for Raindance New York.


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True Grit: A Model For The American Western