Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Oscar scripts part trois...

Round 3 in my lineup of the Oscar scripts and we have two adaptations: True Grit by the Brothers Coen and Winter's Bone by Debra Granik and Anne Rossellini.

These scripts are similar in that they were both written by the people who would ultimately go on to direct and produce them. And as such, they have their own unique stamp. Written with a director's eye and a producer's sensibilities, in the best possible sense.

The two scripts are similar in another sense, each dealing with a teenage girl who is trying to get justice for her father. To do this, both female protagonists must venture into dangerous territory, with only the advice of an untrustworthy and irritable older man to guide them.

Winter's Bone could be described as a 21st century version of True Grit, with crystal meth labs substituting for moonshine factories. Many other factors, including the conflicting personalities, ever-present violence and the grinding poverty all around are the same.

One joyful thing that strikes you from the first page of the Coen's script is the dialogue. It positively hums along and you find yourself reading it aloud in an Arkansas accent. It has some truly great dialogue scenes - the one in the courtroom where marshal Rooster Cogburn describes a raid on the outlaw Wharton household is a standout. You can see the events unfold as he talks - this is a great example of building a picture literally out of words. Mattie, the 14-year-old girl who leads Cogburn into Choctaw country looking for her father's killer Tom Chaney, is a teenage tartar with an acid tongue.

"How long have you been ineffectually pursuing Chaney?" she demands of a cocksure Texas Ranger, knocking him off his perch.

Later, she encounters an old Frank James (brother of Jesse) and he makes the mistake of not getting up to greet her. "Keep your seat, trash!" she spits at him.

But this is also a story with some tenderness. Cogburn is an irritable old drunk with no hygiene habits, but he shows pity for a dying young thief betrayed by his partner. He and the blustering Texas Ranger Le Boeuf care for Mattie's welfare - despite their bickering with her, this is a strange, never-to-be-consummated love triangle.

Characters surprise you in this script. Tom Chaney, when we finally meet him, is very different to the stone killer we'd imagined. Lucky Ned, his elusive gang leader, is a shrewd and pragmatic man despite leading a gang of thieves and killers.

Having seen True Grit, I'm only sorry that the Coens left out one or two little scenes from the script. In particular, the one near the end where a much-older Mattie talks about her life after the events of the film and why she never married. I felt this explained her outcome a lot better and made her seem more real.

This script would be a real contender for Best Adapted Screenplay were it not for the presence of The Social Network in that category. Game over. But this is a worthy second place winner - and it's a must-read for lovers of screen dialogue.

Then there's Winter's Bone, another strong contender in a very impressive category. Ree Dolly lives the kind of life you imagine no one has anymore - bringing up her young brother and sister in an inhospitable end of the Ozarks. The family are so poor they shoot squirrels for food and are constantly on the verge of going under. She has a catatonic mother and her mostly-absent father Jessup has a talent for only one thing: making crystal meth.

He is already missing when Ree receives a visit from the local sheriff with bad news: Jessup has put the family's house and land up as collateral for his most recent bail. And if he fails to appear in court, the bailiffs will take everything from them.

Determined to keep the house and avoid her younger siblings being taken from her, Ree sets out on a twisted journey to the truth, encountering every bit as many obstacles along the way as Mattie Ross. Her only guide - if you can call him that - is her father's mercurial and dangerous older brother, Teardrop. But this is a place where you must fear your relatives as much as your enemies.

This is another script with great dialogue and well-drawn characters. The female characters are particularly strong; there's a sense that as powerless as they are in one way, the local women are the force behind much of what happens. There's one jaw-dropping scene where Ree is taken on a boat ride into hell (not literally but close) that will stay with you long after reading the script.

I haven't seen Winter's Bone but on the basis of the script I'll be renting the DVD as soon as possible.

Sometimes you read over a list of Oscar nominated scripts and wonder what the Academy was thinking. But this year I've been really impressed with the scripts on offer - it's going to be a tough call, especially in the Adapted category.

Roll on February 27th....

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