"True Grit" has everything a lover of cinema could want out of a movie: Joel and Ethan Coen's crackling patois, the terrific camera work of cinematographer Roger Deakins, a star turn by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, and Jeff Bridges, who traded in Bad Blake's guitar (from his Oscar-winning role in 2009's "Crazy Heart") for Rooster Cogburn's guns.
The film also has lots of violence, from a benign portrayal of a gunshot wound at a distance to someone's fingers being cut off to a graphic presentation of a point-blank headshot that spatters blood all over a wall.
It also comes neatly wrapped in a PG-13 package.
Recently, I worked on a research project in which we analyzed the content of a sample of PG-13 movies from three different years (1988, 1997 and 2006) for evidence of "ratings creep." That's the term attributed to the escalation of adult content over time in the same rating category.
We didn't just analyze violence. We also examined sexual content, nudity, use of adult language and presentations of substance abuse. These are the same things the members of the MPAA's Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA) consider when assigning a rating to a film.
Our quantitative content analysis of 45 films indicated a significant increase in violent content in these films, despite the ratings remaining the same. We searched for evidence of "creep" in all categories, but our results pointed to one conclusion: In the PG-13 rating category, the only area of adult content on the rise was violence.
None of the other four areas showed any statistically significant evidence of ratings creep.
Further, PG-13 is literally the "money" rating in terms of box-office earnings. According to boxofficemojo.com, since 2002, PG-13 films have accounted for as much as 55 percent of total domestic grosses (2008). 2010 was actually an off year for PG-13 movies; earning only 42.5 percent of total domestic grosses, it was the rating category's lowest share of the period.
Clearly, a lot is at stake with PG-13.
For years, the MPAA has cited its high approval ratings among parents with children younger than 13. And, Joan Graves, CARA chairwoman since 2000, claims that the ratings board is merely giving parents what they want. Apparently, she's right; recent survey data indicates that fewer than half of parents are concerned about the impact of exposure to violent media content on their children's behavior.
Our results suggest a leniency toward violent content by the MPAA ratings board that parallels American parents' greater comfort with children being exposed to violence than other types of adult content in the unrestricted PG-13 rating category.
The Coen brothers are gifted filmmakers, and they are responsible for some of the best examples of American cinema.
But, by giving young people unrestricted access to their latest film, which includes plenty of graphic violence, the MPAA may be giving parents what they want, but that's not what's best for their children.
Ron Leone is associate professor and chairman of the communication department at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., and a film scholar. He is the lead author of a forthcoming study on film ratings in the "Journal of Children and Media" on the phenomenon of "ratings creep" in American cinema.