Tormented. Conflicted. Those are my words for Barry Pepper. When I look at the best of his work, I see men who are tormented by their circumstances, conflicted by the actions around them. Conflicted by war, by fame, by justice, and jealousy. Conflicted about themselves, about why they’ve done what they’ve done, and how they can atone. Barry Pepper hit strong in the late ‘90s-early 2000s, but, sadly, has taken a step back as of late. I frankly don’t feel he’s given enough roles that fully encapsulate his skill, but the six performances below are perfect exceptions. Some tormented men are to follow.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Whether he’s opening a path for his fellow soldiers on Normandy beach, executing a fellow sniper from 400 yards away, or picking off unsuspecting Germans from a bell tower, everything Jackson does is done for the greater good. There’s no boasting about his achievements, no ceaseless bloodlust in his motivation – he’s a good old boy fighting for his country. As Jackson, Pepper manages to stand out among the ensemble in this film. That itself is saying something.
Top 10 HBO Films list, and my good friend Dan had an interesting comment about Billy Crystal’s 61*. He said that whenever he envisions Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, Thomas Jane and Berry Pepper are synonymous with the real men.
That’s the power of Pepper’s work here. He plays Maris as a conflicted man torn between talent and fame. Maris was a hell of a ball player, and as he got closer to breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season homerun record, the spotlight fell on him in an unflattering way. So he shut down. He smoked too much, isolated himself, and, most notably, let his game suffer when it couldn’t afford to. Barry Pepper is key at conveying torment within the men he plays, and Roger Maris was a deeply troubled man. A great, nuanced performance.
3: The Dale Earnhardt Story (2004)
The Dale Earnhardt Story received a very small release, and has all but vanished from cinematic discussion. That’s a shame. Not only does it contain one of the few lead performances by Pepper, but a grand one at that. The film depicts Earnhardt as a cool fighter. Battling his old man in his youth, battling wives who don’t understand his plight, battling competitors on the track, and so on. For fans of Pepper’s work, his portrayal of Earnhardt is simply a must.
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)
Early in the film, Norton kills a man he mistakenly thinks is trying to harm him. Instead of reporting it, Norton buries the body and hopes that’s that. But the man’s best friend, Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones), kidnaps Norton and demands an unusual form of justice that forces them to travel at great lengths. Essentially, the film is a road movie of sorts: two people who despise one another are forced to travel the land and achieve a greater good. Along their journey, Perkins continually breaks Norton down. He breaks down his entitlement, his self worth, his self respect – he breaks Norton down until he is a shell of a man, begging for forgiveness. Mike Norton’s journey is brutal and long, but because Pepper plays him so well, by the end, I respect him far more than I thought I would.
True Grit (2010)
“Lucky” Ned Pepper
I remember not knowing who Ned Pepper was the first time I saw this Coen brothers remake. I stared at his filthy face and crooked teeth, I listened to his raspy southern draw, and I had no clue. Then it clicked. Once I realized I was watching Barry Pepper, my appreciation for the character (and the man playing him) grew exponentially. I’m always intrigued by actors who take on a role despite little running time and the fact that they will be clouded in heavy makeup. These things don’t matter to Pepper. He works to work, and if his Ned Pepper is any indication, he can claim his worth in a matter of minutes.
The Best of the Best
25th Hour (2002)
Francis Xavier Slaughtery
Francis Xavier Slaughtery is a true alpha male. Never hesitant to brag about how much money he has, or how many women he beds, Francis uses a mask of expensive clothes, slick hair, and an intimidating demeanor to fuel his elitist life. On the surface, he appears to have few problems, but looming just underneath is a vast contempt for his best friend, Monty (Edward Norton). Francis is pissed at Monty. Pissed that he threw his life away dealing drugs. Pissed that Monty’s hot girlfriend still latches onto him. There’s anger in Francis, and as the film develops, his frustration boils hauntingly.
Looking back, I suppose I’m most drawn to Francis’ hypocrisies. He tells one friend that he’ll never speak to Monty again, then, minutes later, promises Monty that he’ll be there when Monty is released from prison. Francis promises to be fully involved in Monty’s last night of freedom, but spends the majority of the time trying to pick up a bartender. He’s angry but compassionate, lost but certain. Francis Xavier Slaughtery is a brute of a man willing to do and say anything for a friend. He’s not perfect, but very few of us are.
Other Notable Roles
The Green Mile (1999)
Knockaround Guys (2001)
We Were Soldiers (2002)
Ripley Underground (2005)
Flags of Our Fathers (2006)
Casino Jack (2010)
The Kennedy’s (2011)
Broken City (2013)