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Actors and performances aren’t frequently covered here because for a long time science-fiction wasn’t an actor’s genre. In recent years however, genre fare has expanded its bounds (or actors have, as you might see it), and it’s always been inclusive to the weird that so often breeds interesting performances. I have no interest in the Academy Award-garnering “I have a disease, here’s my family,” one-man show performances that are typically seen as top in the industry. I want something out of an actor that grabs me or worries me, that makes me think about the character, not the artist’s craft.
These particular performances stand out because the characters they depict experience a great deal of physical pain or bound with endless energy — certainly an endurance test for any performer, despite all the breaks between takes and trailers and stuff. I think the reality of acting dawned on me recently when in an interview Mary Elizabeth Winstead described her experience shooting The Thing as breath-taking in the sense that she was hyperventilating 24-hours a day to act frightened. She was out of breath and light-headed so much, but in the movie it seems like a pretty standard horror role.
Note that the following list isn’t ranking how good I think the performances are, it’s based entirely on… well I guess the blob of text following the number’ll explain it.
10. Ralph Fiennes, Spider
This isn’t a case of bounding off the walls like #2 on this list — it’s a smaller approach. David Cronenberg’s Spider is an adaptation of a book about a mentally unstable British fellow who attempts to piece together a key moment from his past, and suffers the consequences when the memories blur over into the present. This may sound exactly what I was bitching about earlier, but this is a character piece unlike any other — there is almost no dialogue. Right around the level of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, I’d say. There are no soaring soliloquies or shout-fests with fed-up loved ones — Dennis Cleg (Fiennes) interacts with very few people, and when he does, it’s pretty uncomfortable.
He shakes and mumbles to himself, stalks forward with his shoulders slumped. Fiennes has really done it all, whether he’s the hero or the Nazi villain, or my favorite, the sleazy drugdealer from Strange Days, Lenny Nero. In Spider, he joins a good rank in David Cronenberg’s line of male leads (all of them with the exception of Rabid have featured male men characters, though I’m sure that one had a guy hero), another one of which is coming up soon…
9. Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad
This is one of my favorites. On the show, Jesse to me is the interesting character. Walt, played by three-time-in-a-row-Emmy-award-winning Bryan Cranston, is great, but his change is gradual, whereas Jesse is always on the rocks or at the bottom or coming back. He’s also a kid, which is something we must remind ourselves. To help, he uses foul language and says things like “Yo” and “Bitch” as catchphrases; he might jump bad — which is the term I believe they were going for with that title — but he’s actually a pretty nice guy, a victim of his past, of mistakes that ripple out to the end of one’s life.
Though he won the Emmy for Season 3, I think Season 2 was his finest moment — his involvement with Jane, an emotionally strong arc that makes you wonder why the original story had Jesse die at the end of Season 1. His ‘chemistry’ with Walt is just perfect. He’s the reason the premise, for me anyway, works. It’d be great as a show about a seemingly ordinary guy who unlocks the monster inside — but we already have Dexter, and unfortunately, Dexter (1-5) is the better show. In Breaking Bad, things are slightly different, as Walt and Jesse bicker and argue and joke around, and their relationship as student/teacher isn’t forgotten by the writers, and is really compelling to me for some reason.
Aaron Paul’s performance is one of constant exhaustion. Jesse is always running on empty, but he’s got a job to do. In the early days he was driven by money, because while Walt destroyed his life, he couldn’t say no to all that cash he was raking in and then losing. Nowadays (I’m halfway through Season 4) he’s in it because he has to be, and because he couldn’t leave his partner. He couldn’t — and he doesn’t want to.
8. Clive Owen, Children of Men
Those goddamn long shots, man. They must be super-endurance tests for actors. As if filming in front of a disorienting, bizarre green screen for a whole third of a movie in Sin City wasn’t bad enough, now he’s gotta throw his body through all sorts of hoops, navigating physical post-apocalyptic landscapes that seem to go on forever. For us, this makes the world seem real, and the action intense. But for the crew? I can’t even imagine. Children of Men is choreographed and shot so well, it’s like a divine invasion hit Cuaron square in the brainular, and he just painted each frame with gold.
Of course, we know that’s not the truth. Everyone involved put their work in, and that includes our lead, the reluctant Theo.
7. Tom Woodruff Jr., from Everything Good and Gooey
The special effects team of Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. has worked alongside Stan Winston and James Cameron in their prolific careers across almost all of the Alien films (the good and the bad), and very recently with The Thing. They’ve created many of the inventive and effective monsters of the past few decades, and Woodruff Jr. generally gets into the suit.
The physical toll the Robocop suit took on Peter Weller might be blamed on his not returning for a third return in that particular trilogy, but I have a feeling it was other things. Regardless, acting in a heavy rubber suit isn’t as fun as it might look on screen. And acting like a monster? Monsters have the tendency to a) move in otherworldly ways, like the Thing, and b) die horribly, like the Newborn from Alien Resurrection. While they do these things, they sometimes operate in environments thick with fog and goo. Ms. Winstead may talk of hyperventilation during the shoot, but Tom Woodruff Jr. I’m sure had brushes with overheating, even in the deep white of Antarctica…
6. Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises
One word: Naked Shower Fight.
5. Rutger Hauer, Blade Runner
I’m thinking specifically of the ending scene, which I saw on TV a few days ago during Cinemax’s Blade Runner 30th Anniversary, though I thought that was the 25th because I was gonna do something for it on the website. Given the state of things even that seems unlikely but if I missed it anyway…
While watching the climax, after Roy has met his maker and Rick gets an address, I realize how good this movie is and how it gets better with each viewing — and how jacked up Roy is. “Five, six, seven, go to Hell or go to Heaven — *gets hit, smashes into window* — THAT’S THE SPIRIT!” He really goes crazy here in his ‘pursuit’ for Rick, and we see how childlike he becomes. There’s a poigniancy to the madness, and it’s something that the subsequent roles Hauer took on couldn’t fully reproduce.
4. Jason Stathom, Crank and Crank 2: High Voltage
Jesus. The Crank movies are great, and booming with energy. Stathom has become known for driving a car and killing people, but when I close my ears and think “Crank,” the image that always comes to my mind is Jason Stathom running down the street and screaming into the air. These movies really live up to their namesake, and the fact that the second one is actually better than the first speaks to a sense of inventiveness and adventure that Nelvedine/Taylor work in with fiery passion and technical skill.
It’s kind of like the Escape from New York sequels, Escape from LA and Doomsday – they take a ridiculous premise and break it down scene by scene, element by element, making it less a movie and more a loose string of wild, graphic, and original action scenes with all sorts of gimmicks and mayhem. At the center of it all in Crank and Crank 2 is Chev “Fuck you Chelios” Chelios, undoubtedly the most memorable action hero of the 2000s.
3. Sharlto Copley, District 9
There’s something to getting beat up, and then there’s another thing to getting beat up by aliens, robots, PMCs, and warlords in the arid world of Johannesburg. District 9 has it all, and van Wikus goes through it in his painful-looking journey that’d be like if Dr. Brundle went on a mission to save some aliens while being pursued by the private military he used to work with. While his body becomes something that seems to always explode in pus whenever touched, van Wikus is rolling around in the dirt and sand amidst exploding heads.
Sharlto Copley gave it his all in this movie, and we feel his pain without him having to verbalize it. Even when he gets into the robot suit, which is supposed to be fun, there’s a drill noise and he gets hurt by something! This is one hostile world, which gives a lot of weight to the look and feeling of the movie, which moves along at a brisk pace toward a thundering climax*.
2. Kate Winslet, Heavenly Creatures
It’s small wonder why Winslet blossomed into the superstar actress she is today, for when she was seventeen and a part of a sitcom, she was brilliant in one of Peter Jackson’s most acclaimed films, Heavenly Creatures. Seventeen! She bubbles over with a frenzy of joy and insanity, playing a character with real life connections — a killer — who’s unmistakably a little girl with a troubled mind and misunderstood passions.
She loves the world and all its details so much, though not the one we inhabit. She’s the other half of socially awkward, that of off-putting, where the other character, played by the also brilliant Melanie Lynskey (who, like Kate Winslet, is a beautfiul adult), is inward and quiet. Winslet’s character beams and LOLs, always smiling with that face that looks like it’s about to explode, even when she’s plotting to kill someone…
1. Choi Min-Sik, Oldboy
I don’t think the number one could be anyone else. Mr. Min Sik (Mr. Choi?) never had to naked shower fight, but he did eat a live octopus, fight through an uninterrupted and complex hallway battle, withstand all sorts of torture and transform his appearance radically. The character, Oh Dae Su, becomes a monster, and Min-Sik does this with sweeping power and emotion that culminates in one hell of an ending, where after the Big Reveal, he goes crazy in an intense fight scene, screams for mercy and acts like a dog, and then cuts his tongue out. What a movie, I tell you.
So there you have it. These are the performances I watch out for, and I’ll try to put more of these together for other ‘categories’ of acting later.
*I don’t care how lude this word is. There isn’t much else I can use…
We’ve demonstrated that Cronenberg is a filmmaker who has to show what’s going on in his mind because what’s going on in his mind… is so damn strange. Then we’ve shown that he can draw true emotion out of a situation between a woman and a big fly monster. Is A History of Violence telling us that Cronenberg can remain Cronenbergian while working in a mainstream environment? Well, that’s complicated. I will say that the film is not Cronenberg in the traditional sense, yet it is very Cronenberg.
It’s a script by Josh Olson, and based on a graphic novel, something that was passed onto Cronenberg for his creative filter. He was not the source, but in 2004, he has a hell of a say in the final product. This translates into a solid visual style, shocking violence, and an accentuation of theme. Often times you’ll see a movie where there are ideas under the surface, but they never quite come out in full. Pandorum, a movie reviewed here, is an example of this. So the execution is Cronenbergian because it is uncharacteristic of most modern American movies. The ideas themselves are a bit of an evolution for our director, where we have the same questions and psychological probing, but from a different source.
What’s being examined here is human nature and American culture/society, but we’re seeing it on a familiar plane of existence – violence – rather than an alien one - New Flesh. Cronenberg and crew tap into something very recognizeable here, and we share what the characters feel, which can be frightening.
Something interesting is the character of Jack, whose increasingly violent tendencies are unlocked by his father, and not unjustified. We are led to believe that standing up to the bully was correct, as he was being harassed for some time. A degree of violence is only measured in our perception of it, our moral standing. Killing in self-defense is acceptable in the case of Fogerty’s death, because our hero was in danger. Isn’t that what Tom was doing when he went to Philadelphia? Isn’t that what he’s been doing since he left Philadelphia? He’s been fighting to protect his family, yet the violence in his history creeps back doubly.
It returns in the form of old nemeses like Fogerty, and then in the slower, more animalistic (though some would say human) method demostrated in the second sex scene. The violence makes Tom’s wife question herself, and we learn that there is some in all of us. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could do what Tom did at the start of the film? On a thematic level, it’s intriguing that the catalyst sequence in Tom Stall’s diner at closing comes out of an act that’s interpreted as heroism.
Is the killing here justified? That’s inconsequential; what’s important is that it’s violent. Either way it’s brutally heroic, but even heroism rooted in violence is still enough to destroy the family. What’s being said here is that the eponymous history of violence has devastating effects, and it’s so important that we see visually the immediate effects of that violence, thanks to twisted Cronenberg invention, in order to understand the long term psychological effects. Just like the Wes Craven principle that anti-violence can only be effectively approximated in brutal cinema violence. Can our hero Joey overcome the history and continue the family? Even after he’s cut off entirely his history of violence by killing his brother… It’s left ambiguous, which seemingly does not connect entirely the thematic ties.
The question at the end of the film is ‘can this small-town family continue, even with a killer in its midst?’ I think that A History of Violence was more about examining violence and its effects, which for the filmmakers means asking questions and not answering them. The examination is what makes the movie in terms of premise unique – the displacement of violent men of Philadelphia into this tight-knit community, which brings to light culture shock and other various lesser ideas. This may be an instance where the ambiguous ending actually relates thematically to a greater, more external theme of examination, which sounds strange, but essentially we don’t arrive at an answer because we aren’t supposed to. The movie would not be defeated if we did, but perhaps here attention is drawn to the journey if the journey’s end is not known.
Cronenberg is still exploring here, and like all the great SF authors, that’s what he does best. No, he doesn’t have to do that thing where he shows Max Renn shoving a pistol up his vagina-stomach because he can’t just allude to it in dialogue, but it in essence is still the same Cronenberg at the core, but not in appearance. My question is, why does this equate to evolution for so many people? Of course, it’s more complicated than that: straightforward drama is always going to be taken more seriously than a science-fiction drama, and since that’s the development our filmmaker has taken these past three or four films (and certainly comparing his near-bookending Rabid and Eastern Promises doesn’t lend credence to the SF/horror genre as literarily equivalent to film drama), we just seem to elevate our perception of Cronenberg and then say, “hey – now he’s doing drama, which is smarter than SF,” when in fact, no – it was merely Cronenberg dabbling for once in the mainstream.