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True Grit Score: The Academy May Not Love You But I Do

True Grit is a wonderfully executed work of love, admiration and respect by the Coen brothers. It’s singular in genre—it is a complete and true western—which may seem odd at first because the Coens are masters of mixing the domains of the real with that of absurdity (The Big Lebowski), idiocy (Fargo), sheer insanity (Burn After Reading) and rarely stay in the boundaries of classification. However, for them to commit to such a project, a western of all things, is not entirely surprising, as there were always subtle hints: (1) the directors’ of mark of rolling tumbleweed in numerous films, (2) the heavy influence of cowboy wisdom in The Big Lebowski, (3) No Country for Old Men wavering plot lines, similar to some westerns. Okay, maybe that is not a ton of hints, or even particularly convincing ones, but what does garner validity is when the Coen brothers commit to an idea, their follow-through is always incomparable.

Nestling into the eve of 2011, I finally got a chance to see this film in theatres, thus its absence from the Best Scores lists of 2010 and my association of it with this New Year. Firstly, I enjoyed this film. More than enjoyed, I loved, savoured and relished every moment of it. The Coens’ commitment to the integrity of the novel reshapes the impressions from its predecessor, drawing the plot back to character Mattie Ross, who controls and drives the story, and makes it a true story of revenge, grit and determination but voiced and defined by the 14 year old female character. Perhaps it is that it is a touch more acceptable to have a movie dominated by a strong-willed female, so clearly acting above not only her age but also her societal expectations at the film’s depicted time, that the Coens were able to recreate the original work of the novel or that is their ability to perceive what is great and honest about art despite outside influence. Their ability to strip away this style of filmmaking into a finely-tuned film accentuating the beauty of language and subtle complexity of character makes this film undoubtedly their own.

The first impressions of music within the film, being that it is a Coens film, is always a tease. The trailer features Johnny Cash’s ‘God’s Gonna Cut You Down’, a song driven by a boot’s stomp and heated in the idea of redemption and salvation. No one can uncover the ironies of vengefulness and respect like Cash, and though not listed on the official soundtrack (no surprises there) the track is a perfect fit for the trailer but starkly in contrast for what the Coen brothers dreamed up as the inspiration and composition of their score.

After researching the score for a while—reading all the terrible decisions about it being determined ineligible for award competition due to the interpolation of period hymns—I was both perplexed with that decision (and most by the Academy) and again reminded why the Coens have looked to Carter Burwell to score yet another film. Unlike most western films, which sample heavy brass and sweeping emotional cues, Burwell has chosen music heavily influenced by 19th century hymns, favoring piano to create the muted sounds of the severe and dangerous notes of the film. Also, a hymn, which I believe is ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms’, is featured as a melody in numerous of the film’s compositions. It is outwardly present in ‘Your Headstrong Ways’ in a classic western style, proud trumpets with the melody signing on a background of courageous strings and drums, but manipulated and contorted into a morbid and haunting flute or piccolo line in ‘Taken Hostage,’ imparting Tom Chaney’s cowardice and the foreseeable danger to Mattie Ross, then turned creepy and suspenseful in ‘The Snake Pit’ before becoming a heartbreaking end with heavy woodwinds on ‘I Will Carry You’ while still imparting hope, trust and faithfulness—the companions to the idea of true grit. For this incredible mark of ingenuity and creativity, the Academy has marked the score as unoriginal and deemed it unable to compete among others. It is just unbelievable. But awards are not everything, nor really my source of frustration, more so it is the lack of consistency within appraisal. Why is it that the film itself, the directors, writers, actors and whatnot can be acknowledged for their work even though the movie was based on a novel and samples from its former incarnation, while Burwell cannot receive the same accolades because he used a few hymns as inspiration? It seems utterly insane to me and, moreover, completely unfair.

This beautifully composed score is simple at times, such as the tinkering notes of piano keys in ‘Ride to Death,’ which allows the film to capitalize on its sweeping landscapes and overwhelming emotions and concepts, and characteristically boisterous in the Western mold (‘Your Headstrong Ways’) in other moments. Each piece, whether short or cascading, drew in the actions of each depiction—what motions, thoughts and characters were present—and made them specifically for this creative retelling, allowing the complexity of character to ring true, but also the subtle ironies and hilarious character/actor peccadilloes to bleed through. True Grit score I give you a nine out of ten, a shiny statue for originality and a medal for the musical representation of sincerity and honour. Burwell’s sorrowful piano compositions make me want to sob and his proud and brave brass compositions make me want to tip my hat and raise my chin to the horizon of honest and true civilians.

Kaitlin McNabb

Track Listing

  1. The Wicked Flee
  2. Father’s Gun
  3. Little Blackie
  4. Your Headstrong Ways
  5. A Great Adventure
  6. River Crossing
  7. We Don’t Need Him Do We?
  8. The Hanging Man
  9. A Methodist and a Son of a Bitch
  10. Talking to Horses
  11. A Turkey Shoot
  12. Talk About Suffering
  13. La Boeuf Takes Leave
  14. Taken Hostage
  15. One Against Four
  16. The Snake Pit
  17. Ride to Death
  18. I Will Carry You
  19. A Quarter Century
  20. The Grave