True Grit, the Coen brothers’ remake of the 1969 John Wayne Western, which opens today to usher in the Christmas weekend. A one-eyed Jeff Bridges, for one. The Coens’ cockeyed attempt at a traditional Western. Matt Damon pretending to be Tommy Lee Jones. And Hailee Steinfeld, who is as good as advertised as the precocious Mattie Ross (though she’s egregiously, if wisely, mislabeled as a Supporting Actress for this season’s Oscar campaign — her character drives the plot).There are plenty of reasons to see
Buried deep in the background — and behind the gnarliest set of teeth since Nosferatu — is a winning performance from Barry Pepper. The 40-year-old actor, best known for his work in Saving Private Ryan, 61*, and 25th Hour, is practically unrecognizable, playing a red-eyed marauder named Lucky Ned, who finds himself in cahoots with Josh Brolin’s villainous fugitive. Lucky Ned, well… let’s just say he’s not so lucky, but Pepper gives the film a boost when he and his gang are forced to confront Bridges and Damon’s posse of two-and-a-half.
Pepper, who’s also currently starring in the Jack Abramoff movie, Casino Jack, is one of those rare things: a character actor in a leading man’s body. Terrence Malick hired him for his next film, and he might be the rare actor his age whose best days are still ahead.
In True Grit, it’s striking to see him and Damon together on screen, both looking worse for wear from their last cinematic encounter. Those who recall that initial meeting (Damon was trying to hold a French bridge against some tanks while Pepper was picking off Nazis with his rifle from the temporary shelter of a church tower) might appreciate the irony of their final violent confrontation in True Grit.
So can I get some love for Barry Pepper? And can someone explain to me why he’s not more of a star?