A grittier 'True Grit'

Mattie and  Ned
Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) and Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper) debate a point in the Coen brothers adaptation of "True Grit"
Image courtesy Paramount Pictures (Photo: Lorey Sebastian )

St. Louis Park natives Joel and Ethan Coen told a Minneapolis audience last year they wanted to remake the classic western "True Grit" in part to rectify an injustice to the novel on which it's based. Their film, which opens tomorrow appears to do just that.

True Grit is the story of Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl who in 1880's Arkansas hires a Federal Marshall called Rooster Cogburn to hunt down her father's murderer.

"Can we depart this afternoon?" she asks.

"We?" Cogburn replies, his voice rumbling off the effects of the last night's whiskey. "You're not going, that is no part of it."

"You have misjudged me if you think I am silly enough to give you $50 and watch you simply ride off," Mattie responds.

"I'm a bonded US Marshall!"

"That weighs little with me," says Mattie in a level, but insistent tone. "I will see the thing done!"

Mattie has been described as a bit of a pill. But actor Barry Pepper, who plays one of the outlaws in True Grit, said he understands why the Coen brothers wanted to tell her story.

"It really does have this old English-hillbilly-Shakespeare quality to it, in that it's very musical and rhythmical."

"I think that is what is so unique about the Coens," Pepper said. "They are the kind of filmmakers interested in telling a western entirely from the voice of a 14-year-old girl which totally spins this genre on its head."

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Pepper said another Coen touch is the way they stuck faithfully to the language of novelist Charles Portis.

"And it really does have this old English-hillbilly-Shakespeare quality to it, in that it's very musical and rhythmical," Pepper said. "It's a very, very authentic sound that the characters have."

"Are you some kind of law?" Mattie demands of La Boeuf, who is also chasing her father's killer, although he is more interested in another crime.

"That's right, " he says. "I'm a Texas Ranger."

Mattie is not impressed.

"That may make you a big noise in that state," she sniffs. "In Arkansas, you should mind that your Texas trappings and title do not make you an object of fun."

Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Directors Ethan Coen, left, and Joel Coen pose for a portrait at the 34th Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2009.
Carlo Allegri/AP

The True Grit cast features some big names, including Matt Damon as La Boeuf the Texas Ranger, and last year's best actor Oscar winner Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn. However they went with a complete unknown Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie.

Barry Pepper said he was impressed by how Joel and Ethan Coen treated everyone on set the same, including Steinfeld, the first timer.

"They never spoke down to her, being she was 13 at the time," Pepper said. "And it was a very arduous shoot, we were up in the high mountains in the snow. And she's having to get drug through icy rivers and shot at, and ride horseback and getting thrown around by these bandits that she encounters ... She just rose to the occasion."

Barry Pepper had to work hard to get his role as Lucky Ned Pepper, the leader of an outlaw band which shelters the killer. He admits he wasn't the first choice for the part.

"I put a character together in full costume and put myself on tape, and sent it in to them that way, and they offered me the part based on the character that I had put together," Barry Pepper said.

Searching for a killer
Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) La Boeuf (Matt Damon) and Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) on the trail of a murderer in the Coen brothers' adaptation of "True Grit."
Image courtesy Paramount Pictures (Photo: Lorey Sebastian )

And of course there was that 'family connection.'

"He's a Pepper too, so it fit me like a calf-skin glove" Pepper laughed.

A lot has been made of how the Coen Brothers "True Grit" is darker than the 1969 version directed by Henry Hathaway which won John Wayne the best actor Oscar for his Rooster Cogburn.

Barry Pepper said he sees how that earlier adaptation was made as a John Wayne movie. However he believes the Coens have created something special and succeeded in honoring the novel.

"It's very funny and sort of darkly odd and humorous and the movie really reflects that humor in its adaptation. I think it just elevates the Coen's filmography yet again," he said. "They have such a diverse filmography as it is bit this just adds to it. It's beautiful."

And family friendly too. Despite a certain amount of bloodletting in "True Grit," this is the first Coen Brothers movie since 2003's "Intolerable Cruelty" to escape an R rating.