Last week, the NYFCC awarded Rachel Weisz its Best Actress prize for her sumptuous period turn in “The Deep Blue Sea,” and well-deserved it was. But it reminded me of what I’m calling the Rachel Weisz Argument: an actor’s entire body of work in a given year is a better measure of “best.”
You might say it should be called the Matthew McConaughey Argument this year. After all, 2012 marked the moment McConaughey, perpetrator of too many forgettable romantic comedies to count (“Failure to Launch,” “The Wedding Planner,” “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” and “EDtv” are my least favorite, in ascending order of affront), discovered his dark recesses and played against type in four grim, and grimly funny, takes on Southern eccentricity. He deserves some sort of humanitarian Oscar, if only for saving himself.
I mean to take nothing away from his vivacious performance in “Killer Joe,” or the raw, sad underbelly he finds in “Magic Mike,” or the winking play on his preening, shirtless-on-the-beach persona in Richard Linklater’s excellent “Bernie.” (The less said about “The Paperboy” the better, though the blame doesn’t lay with McConaughey.) But the cowboy continuity of these performances, each a twist on good ‘ol boy swagger, suggests that McConaughey’s range remains somewhat narrow.
On the face of it, Weisz’s performances were no more expansive, two unfaithful wives (in “The Deep Blue Sea” and “360”) and a spy’s sidekick (“The Bourne Legacy”). But there’s a scene in the latter film, otherwise a dull, schematic series reboot, in which Weisz finds the higher register at which the Bourne movies once operated. Having survived a chilling workplace shooting, she returns home — a dilapidated farmhouse, echoing with imagined footsteps — to pack up and get out. Faced with an interview by two “grief counselors,” she moves seamlessly between panic and perceptiveness; Weisz widens her eyes, voice roiling with emotion, but she never stops processing each new piece of data. Somehow, she conjures up the paralysis of imminent danger without dissolving in a heap.
It’s easily the film’s best scene — so strong, thanks to Weisz’s harried performance, that it points at director Tony Gilroy’s biggest missed opportunity. The story of Aaron Cross might have become a two-hander worthy of its predecessors, in which Jason Bourne and Pam Landy forged an unexpected team of rivals. This may be the tougher skill to master, to elevate a film rather than sink lazily into its mediocrity. Weisz also had the best scene in Fernando Meirelles’ cold, stolid “360,” an afternoon liaison that pulses with regret while relenting to the characters’ desire. Weisz, in London’s gray light, once again manages her signature feat of balance: she conveys the sharp, hot pang that comes with being wanted without ever letting the glimmer of doubt out of her eyes. Back in July I called it one of my favorite scenes of the year, and my opinion hasn’t changed a whit.
That’s why Hester in “The Deep Blue Sea,” wearing her crimson jacket like a scarlet letter, remains so indelible. Weisz, unafraid of powerful feeling, seems tailored-made for Terence Davies’ more mannered, melodramatic aesthetic. Wedged into a telephone booth, pleading with her lover (Tom Hiddleston) to return home to collect his things, or ladling soup from her dinner bowl, terse and unflinching during her mother-in-law’s mean-spirited onslaught, Hester is, thanks to Weisz, exactly the kind of prickly soul we find so captivating to watch.
1. Matthew McConaughey (“Killer Joe,” “Magic Mike,” “Bernie,” and “The Paperboy”)
2. Philip Seymour Hoffman (“The Master,” “A Late Quartet”)
3. Tommy Lee Jones (“Hope Springs,” “Lincoln”)
4. John Hawkes (“The Sessions,” “Lincoln”)
5. Channing Tatum (“21 Jump Street,” “Magic Mike”)
1. Rachel Weisz (“The Deep Blue Sea,” “360,” “The Bourne Identity”)
2. Anne Hathaway (“The Dark Knight Rises,” “Les Misérables”)
3. Rosemarie DeWitt (“Your Sister’s Sister,” “Nobody Walks”)
4. Maggie Smith (“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” “Quartet”)
5. Melissa Leo (“Francine,” “Flight”)
“The Deep Blue Sea,” “360,” “Killer Joe,” “Bernie,” “Magic Mike,” and, starting today, “The Bourne Legacy,” are all available on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD.