Back in 2008 the Coen Brothers scooped up some Oscars in their deserved hands with No Country for Old Men, which gave rise to a pie analogy on these very pages. Good old pies, you can always count on them to help explain a Cormac McCarthy adapted thriller that stretched out tense shoot outs and epic landscapes. Anyway, the Co-Bros are back with another adaptation, this time of True Grit, a Charles Portis novel already made into a film back in 1969 featuring John Wayne. Not being a big Western fan, or alive when it was released, this review can only take True Grit on its own merits and will have to side-step the remake factor.
True Grit is the story of a 14 year-old girl attempting to avenge her father’s murder by hiring a bounty-hunter type person in the shape of a drunk and violent Jeff Bridges. Helped / hindered by a Texas Ranger on the same man’s trail (Matt Damon), the film is a simple adventure story with shoot-outs, long pony rides and some gentle violence along the way. Bridges has been Oscar nominated for his portrayal as the grizzled drunk, and he is an amusing watch, complete with a drawl so thick it’s sometimes too difficult to understand what on earth he’s saying. Matt Damon is a pleasant surprise, almost unrecognisable as the slightly square Texas Ranger, riffing with Bridges and taking a much-needed step away from the rectangular-headed hero role he’s recently cast himself as.
Completing the trio is relative newcomer Hailee Steinfield as 14 year-old Mattie. Steinfield is up for best supporting actress, and rightly so. She plays the unbelievably competent teen with suitable gravitas, but shows enough flecks of fear in her eyes to give her a human edge. Not that it’s particularly easy to accept her as entirely human. Her character reels off Dawson’s Creek-style dialogue, bargaining with adults, tripping through legal terminology and coming across as one of those know-it-all teens that only exist in fiction (because let’s face it, teens know nothing). She verges on being one of those teen heroines doing feats that you’d only see in some early Disney flick, maybe called “Cowgirl!” or something equally jolly. Thankfully the adults around her stop it from falling into that genre, and the incredulity of her character is offset by the likeable lead Steinfield creates.
Overall, True Grit is an enjoyable adventure, with some flashes of suspense, a couple of thrilling shoot-outs and plenty of dark humour. But it doesn’t rise above being a simple Western tale. There is no undercurrent here, nothing extra to savour or ponder, and the ending feels somewhat unsatisfying. No Country was compared to a big pie, while the lighter Burn After Reading got a tasty snack such as a chocolate chip muffin. In my world of food, True Grit would sit as a really nice cheese and tomato sandwich. Fills a hole in a substantial way, but you wouldn’t turn to it if you needed a fully satisfying meal. With the Coens behind it, this is one well-made sandwich. But even the greatest chefs will be constrained by what they chose to put on the menu.
I’m being overly critical, perhaps because of increased expectations from nominations and other reviews. And I would definitely recommend True Grit, with enough enthusiasm to build it to a CF2. But it’s just not the pie I was expecting, and if you go wanting pie and get a sandwich then you leave wanting something a bit more. Some chips maybe. I’ll stop now – I’m hungry.