True Grit

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Everyone who has a particular taste in movies needs a husband like mine. He watches movies as a hobby, fitting them in while working on something else, and then when I want to see something new that I’ll like, he’s got options ready for me.

A few weeks ago I suggested we watch a movie, and he said, “Hmm. What have I got in the queue? Oh! True Grit. You will LOVE it.”

Honestly, it wasn’t a movie I would have seen on my own. I’ve never caught on to Westerns and hadn’t seen a preview for it. But because Hubby knows my taste in movies so well and was so confident about this one, I shut down my computer for the night and went down to our basement to watch it with him.

And yep, I did love it.

How could he be so sure that I would? I thought about it through the movie and since. What did the Coen brothers do so well with this one? Here’s the list I’ve come up with:

  • no-nonsense 14-year-old girl able to negotiate successfully against grown men
  • witty dialogue, which is always a winner for me
  • ornery characters you can’t help loving, even when they’re bickering with each other (honestly, I even adored the “bad” guys, like Ned in those awesome sheepskin pant-covers)
  • clever, subtle humor, as opposed to annoying slapstick
  • emotional attachment, even beyond the characters: her horse, for one, but I also loved her braids and her hat lined with newspaper and the marshall’s eye patch and that rope they circled around them for snakes
  • high stakes — despite a 14-year-old main character, in a Western anyone could die or be dismembered, etc, at any point, as the movie shows us right from the beginning with four corpses readied for burial and a trial describing how many others the marshall had killed
  • flawed men with hero potential, like Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon; you knew from the start that they would quarrel through the entire movie and make huge mistakes but come through in big ways when it counted
  • emerging father–daughter type relationship done well; yes, we love to see romantic relationships in movies, but there are other kinds that can win us over too, and when Jeff Bridges races back with Mattie at the end — wow — that’s when you know how powerful their bond had become: my eyes did not leave the screen

Looking over that list, I think emotional attachment overlaps with and trumps all the others. If I didn’t feel emotionally connected to Mattie, it wouldn’t matter that she could negotiate with grown men or that she has a special bond with Jeff Bridges by the end. Emotion is the trump card. How do you appeal to it? How do you make an audience love your characters?

Flaws, yes, or we won’t believe them enough. Coupled with admirable qualities, like true grit (Mattie starts the movie by negotiating to spend the night with three hanged corpses because the undertaker has charged too much for preparing her father’s body). We need a dash of vulnerability, like when Mattie eyes a corpse’s dead hand hanging out and you know she’s at least a little scared; if she weren’t, we wouldn’t feel for her as much, and showing that vulnerability helps us relate to her. And we need to see a sense of honor to know that, despite their flaws, these characters will do the right thing in the end, regardless of personal sacrifice.

Now to get back to making sure my own characters have those things going for them — like plenty of true grit.

What do you think are the most crucial aspects of character?

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4 responses »

  1. I think you’ve nailed it. Characters have to be believably flawed, good, and hurting somehow. We have to be emotionally connected to the characters or nothing else matters. Now if I could just figure out how to do it right.

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