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True Grit’s success surprises even the Coen brothers

By A. James Memmott

January 7, 2011 at 8:54am

It looks as if the Coen brothers, those cinematic bad boys, are going all mainstream on us.

The New York Times reports that True Grit, produced, directed and written by Joel and Ethan Coen, is “burning up the box office,” somewhat to the surprise of critics and the Coens themselves.

Released on Dec. 22, the remake of the 1969 John Wayne western had taken in just short of $90 million by Monday.

Thus, it has easily outdistanced the $74.3 million earned overall by No Country for Old Men, the Coens’ previously highest-grossing film, for which they received an Academy Award for best directing.

True Grit, which cost only $38 million to make, is certain to pass The Social Network, the Oscar-favorite story of the founding of Facebook that was released in October. It cost $50 million and had earned $93.3 million as of Monday.

The King’s Speech, another Oscar contender, has earned $24 million since its late November release.

True Grit is also doing well against Little Fockers, a comedy also released on Dec. 22 that is unlikely to win any awards. As of Monday, it had grossed $105 million, but the totals for the two movies last weekend were relatively close.

The box-office results for True Grit are surprising for several reasons. It’s a western, after all, a genre long out of favor.

And it’s a western in which the characters speak a stylized and formal diction that, while true to the novel by Charles Portis upon which the movie is based, might seem off-putting to a 21st-century viewer.

There’s random, even casual violence, though any Coen brothers fans would expect that (think Fargo and wood chipper.) Finally, there’s zero love interest.

But, even with those quirks, or perhaps because of them, the movie, which is the story of a 14-year-old girl seeking to avenge the murder of her father, turns out to be family fare.

In part, that’s because families can see it together. The movie is rated PG-13 as opposed to the R-rated Coen brothers movies that include Barton Fink, Fargo, Burn after Reading, No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man.

“We wanted it to be a movie younger people could watch,” Joel Coen told the Times.

Finally, the movie’s cast includes three box-office names - Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin - who give quirky, exuberant performances. They’re joined by the newcomer, 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld, who proves to be as accomplished a scene-stealer as any of her co-stars.

The upshot of True Grit’s success, according to the Times, is that it’s a surprise Oscar contender, this year’s Blind Side, that popular general-interest movie that received several Oscar nominations after it got noticed by performing well at the box office.

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