The original True Grit was released in 1969 (see my review) was one of the films that marked the end of the Western in cinema. Primarily about the relationship between hard-as-nails teen Mattie (Kim Darby) and grizzled old marshall Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne, in an Academy Award winning performance), it worked because Mattie was fearless and dogged in her pursuit of justice for the ranch hand who murdered her father, and because Cogburn was a down-on-his-luck alcoholic with a desire to do well.
The chemistry of this all-important relationship fails to gel in the remake directed by Ethan and Joel Coen because Hailee Steinfeld (who plays Mattie) isn't tough and fearless and because in their zeal to jump to the pursuit the Coens cut out the first ten minutes of the original, where we meet and learn what drives Mattie. Worse, Jeff Bridges does a poor job as Rooster Cogburn, playing him as a falling-down drunk with has no redeeming characteristics, cold and distant.
Mattie's father has been killed by ranch hand Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin in one of the best performances in the film), who subsequently bolted into Indian territory and joined forces with the outlaw Lucky Ned (Barry Pepper). Mattie hires Cogburn to pursue him after the sheriff explains that he has no jurisdiction in Indian lands. Tagging along is pretty-boy Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon), who seeks Chaney for his own reasons.
Westerns are morality plays, where there's no space for ambiguity or temptation. In our morally ambiguous times, it's satisfying to see this simplicity, and that's one reason the more slovenly Bridges as Cogburn doesn't work: unlike Wayne in the original, he's not a good man fallen on bad times, but a thoroughly unlikeable character, a rehash of his role as Blake in Crazy Heart.
True Grit is a story about vengeance, pursuit and the unforgiving world of the Old West, with sweeping Texan landscapes and splendid production and exteriors. Without sympathetic characters, however, I was never engaged in the pursuit and found the ending anticlimactic and ambiguous. There's great buzz for this film and Steinfeld's performance, so if you want to know what people are talking about, this film might just be on your to-watch list anyway.