At the risk of offending some, I will say up front that I think the Coen brothers’ re-make of True Grit is, in virtually every way, superior to the original.
Perhaps the most vivid illustration I can give is a comparison of the opening scenes of each. In the original, we start with a cheesy musical theme followed by an opening scene at the Ross farm, where we see a capable young girl handling the family’s finances, we see her loving father, and we see the latter leave with the hired man, Tom Chaney, who will soon kill him. Our heroine Mattie Ross voices her distrust of Chaney as they ride off. Then we see a scene in a bar—Chaney is drunk and losing at cards, he starts making violent accusations of cheating, but Mr. Ross pulls him away from the table and outside before violence can erupt. After a brief confrontation, it does, with Chaney shooting Ross, stealing some money from him, and making his escape as men come out of the bar, drawn by gunshots.
True Grit (2010) begins in silence and darkness, the camera not quite focusing on some small source of light near the middle of the screen. As we come into focus, we hear Mattie Ross narrating what will ultimately be a slightly more concise version of what I’ve just related. What we finally see are two lights on the outside of a bar and the dead body of her father on the ground. Finally, Tom Chaney gallops by, though except for his legs, the horse’s legs, and some of its back, Chaney is out of the frame, unseen.
What we have in the comparison is a darker, starker world in the latter film, a bit more mystery and menace from our villain who is never seen, and Mattie Ross has been established from the beginning as our narrator and protagonist. And what a protagonist she is! Hailee Steinfeld just has that much more intensity, intelligence and grit than her predecessor. In a real sense, the original was John Wayne’s movie—this is Hailee Steinfeld’s movie, and that’s no small feat sharing the screen with Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon (and, for that matter, a number of other talented actors). All of which brings me to a second point of comparison: I think that the overall level of acting is higher in the new version, where every bit part and supporting player is more or less perfect. When I say that this is Hailee Steinfeld’s movie, I acknowledge that these other actors gave it to her—not because their own performances are sub-par, but because it’s her story and it’s supposed to be that way.Although it's a slightly different flavor, Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn is just as good as Wayne's, and Matt Damon improves the role of Le Boeuf considerably. JohThe supporting players, too, were uniformly excellent.
Another element that the remake offers that the original didn’t is a pervasive—usually dark—humor. There were quite a few very funny moments in the film, though they didn’t detract or distract from the film’s dark seriousness—if anything, they enhanced it. It felt more real, which I think is also a mark of the evolution of the film Western.
All in all, an excellent movie and an excellent re-make.