Before I go into this review, I'd like to answer the first question that springs into mind when discussing a remake, especially one that gave someone an oscar, is whether it's as good as it's original. So to answer: Yes, it's better than the original. Can we move on? Good.
What sets auter directors Joel and Ethan Coen apart from their peers on the more independent side of filmmaking, besides the shocking amount of talent and vision they consistently show? Well, the answer lies in setting. Films like Fargo, No Country for Old Men or A Serious Man would usually never be able to make any money outside the indie scene, due to their labyrinthine plots, dark subject matters and often nihilistic endings (to say nothing of The Big Lebowski or O Brother, Where Art Thou). BUT when they're set in the obviously American settings, then they become less impentrable. Such is the case with the Coen Brothers latest work, True Grit.
Hailee Steinfeld has the lead as Mattie, a 14 year old girl who's father was murdered by a man named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin, who some of you might remember as the hero from No Country for Old Men). She hires a violent Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, IE The Dude) to help bring him to justice. Along the way they are joined Matt Damon as La Bouef, a Texas Ranger hunting Chaney for his own reason. And, this being a Coen brother film, that's about all I can say without risking spoilers (and yes there are still spoilers, even if you've seen the original).
The acting across the board is excellent, with a lot detail devoted to making all 3 of the leads human and flawed. Hailee does an excellent job, and she is definitely a young actress to keep an eye on. Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon of course do great work, be shocked. What keeps it all interesting is, while they are unique and sympathetic, all 3 of them are on some level, deeply unlikeable. Mattie is naïve and condescending whereas La Bouef is rude and arrogant. But the standout in this area is Cogburn, who is violent, crude and careless. He's less the cowboy hero that John Wayne played him as and more a violent hobo, who just happens to be an expert gunfighter.
The dialogue and story are both well written and compelling (see above Re: Coen Brother) but what surprises me is how efficient it is. Each action leads to the next, no line of dialogue is wasted, all of it works towards characterizing one of the 3 leads or pushing the plot forward. That's not a complaint, merely an observation. It's easily the leanest, most efficient movie of substance since Eastern Promises.
The camera work is excellent, used to accentuate the excellently coregraphed gunfights and chase scenes. The Hymn based soundtrack works well with the setting. What also works excellently is the sets and costumes, adding some deeply needed authenticity to the setting that a lot even very good westerns neglect. Of course, this being a Coen brother film, it's also rather dark. I don't want to get into it (spoilers you know) but I'll just say I'm surprised it got a PG-13.
Of course this leads to the question: Is it as good as Black Swan? (Originally this would have been is it as good as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo but you know). I feel that it's a more efficient, more successful movie, and is better at communicating it's ideas and thoughts. But on the other hand, Black Swan was a more unique film from a less proven director; The Coen Brothers making an excellent movie is as shocking as the sun rising in the morning. But then, why should I choose? They're both excellent movies, both high on my list for best movie of the year and both worthy of your time and attention. So go see True Grit. And Black Swan. Go see them both.
Elessar is a 20 year old Alaskan born cinephile and look at him, he actually saw a movie the day it came out.