Michael Fassbender has had a good run of it these past few years. It’s a hot streak (one which saw him the recipient of the "staggering honor" that was Playlist Man of the Year 2011) that looks set to continue with the Irish/German actor moving between critically adored arthouse films and broad-appeal tentpoles with ease, often for directors who he’s impressed before. Obviously, right now he can be seen reuniting with "Hunger" and "Shame" director Steve McQueen on the Oscar-tipped "12 Years a Slave," while this week also seems him back with "Prometheus" helmer Ridley Scott in the Cormac McCarthy-penned "The Counselor." Next year will again see him do the indie/tentpole one-two in Lenny Abrahamson‘s "Frank" (the director previously cast Fassbender in a Mastercard commercial before either had made the real leap to features), before he returns as Magneto in "X-Men: Days of Future Past."
But what’s perhaps even more impressive than the balancing act between large and small budgeted, high and low profiles movies, is the kind of roles that Fassbender seems attracted to, even now that he’s a bona fide star and a box-office draw in his own right. As tempting and as available as the opportunities must be to him, he’s not immediately going for hero roles or even the leading man part, and often seems content to play in support (as in ‘Slave,’ "Haywire," even "Jane Eyre") or as part of an ensemble (‘X-Men: First Class," "Prometheus," "Inglourious Basterds"). Despite the steely good looks and a fanbase fully prepared to drool at his dreaminess, Fassbender’s attracted to complex, flawed, interesting characters, and if that means he often gets only a share of the spotlight, then so be it. It’s this trait, more than anything else that makes his name in the credits such a reliable mark of quality over the last few years, and long may it continue.
But everybody has to come from somewhere and just as it seems kind of incredible that such a respected "serious" actor might have been at one time merely another set of rippling abs in Zack Snyder‘s "300," there are other films in Fassbender’s back catalogue that aren’t necessarily topmost in the mind when we think about his career. In some cases that’s simply because of their small-scale nature, while in others it may be because they’re plain bad. But seeing as there’s little fun in running over the well-trodden ground of his best-known films, here are five Michael Fassbender movies that, for better or worse, you might not have seen.
Well, this is a peculiar film. Directed by François Ozon, based on a book by British novelist Elizabeth Taylor, this English-language costume drama was Fassbender’s first post-“300” big-screen role, and his character as the tortured, brooding, handsome object of the heroine’s affections, somewhat prefigures his turn as Mr. Rochester in Cary Fukunaga’s “Jane Eyre.” But it’s pretty much right there that the similarities end, as Ozon’s film is a horse of a very different color, a lush, overblown melodrama that occasionally unsheathes its satirical claws, but not frequently enough to ever feel like it’s making a real point. Introduced by sickly decorative pink titles, the film follows an admirably unlikable heroine, Angel (Romola Garai), the precocious daughter of a grocer who is convinced her blazing talent will make her a famous novelist but treats her long-suffering mother and everyone else in her provincial town with deep contempt. While still very young, however, she gets her first novel published by kindly, paternal Theo (Sam Neill), and it is indeed a roaring success (if not with critics). She duly does attain all the wealth and fame of which she’d dreamt, along the way falling hard for Esme (Fassbender), the brother of her devoted secretary Nora. At first glance it might seem a strange choice, certainly for Ozon, but for anyone interested in authors, authorship and inspiration, Angel is a fascinating character because, though successful, her novels are trash and she is primpingly deluded as to her talents. Fassbender’s Esme too is “creative,” a painter arrogantly certain of his own misunderstood genius while churning out dull daubs for which no one but Angel, lit by her total adoration, has any time. The relationship between these two and between them and their capricious muses forms a nexus of odd fascination in the middle of what is otherwise a fairly straightforward corset opera. As time passes and Angel’s rise to grandeur is almost too meteoric for belief, at times playing out against what must be (it was only 2007 after all) deliberately obvious back-projections, we start to wonder if what we’re watching is real at all, or just the product of her fevered imagination. But the film just doesn’t give us enough to go on to keep us interested in second guessing that point, instead getting bogged down in a war/pacifism subplot, Esme’s infidelity and Angel’s miscarriage; it all gets very “Gone With the Wind,” and not in a good way. Fassbender’s role isn’t huge and some of his character’s zigzags do lend weight to the idea that he is, at least partially, a projection of Angel’s/the film’s torrid imaginings, but even in what’s pretty much a supporting role he brings that flinty handsomeness and suggestion of secrecy that makes Angel, and everyone in the world since about 2008, swoon. However it feels like Ozon overall can’t make up his mind if he’s making a full-on lurid melodrama, or something that metatextually comments on lurid melodramas, and so we end up with a film that tries to be a cake, and eat it too. [C]
"Eden Lake" (2008)
There’s a uniquely British horror subgenre known as "hoodie horror." In this subgenre, exemplified by things like the Michael Caine revenge thriller "Harry Browne" and the dull-as-dishwater Irish horror flick "Citadel," very nice adults are menaced by very mean children, usually wearing hooded sweatshirts. (This style of dress makes British people incredibly nervous.) "Eden Lake" is one of these movies, which is even drearier than most of its contemporaries. In the film Kelly Reilly plays a schoolteacher who travels to the remote English countryside for a vacation (or, if you’re British, "a holiday") with her boyfriend (Fassbender). Initially, they’re simply annoyed by a small gang of punk kids who are blasting their hip-hop music and generally acting like dicks. But then their tomfoolery becomes more menacing and, after an altercation ends with the kids’ dog getting killed, things take a turn for the worse. Fassbender’s role is largely thankless and he looks so young, with an undeveloped physique and bad skin, that it’s sometimes hard to differentiate between him and the killer kids. The actor does get one big, truly wonderful moment, though when, after he’s been stabbed multiple times by the kids and generally abused, he explains to Reilly what kind of wedding they would have had, had he been able to propose on the vacation like he had originally intended. In between gasps, his multiple wounds oozing wildly, he tells Reilly that he would have taken her to Africa for the wedding. "I even talked to your old man," he wheezes. What’s even worse is that he doesn’t even get to die immediately after. Instead, Reilly gets to watch as he’s lit on fire right beside her. The last half hour of "Eden Lake" is entirely Fassbender-free and even uglier and more grueling (she’s a school teacher! And now she’s killing little kids! Ah the irony!). "Eden Lake" is a place that you should never, ever want to visit. [C-]
"Blood Creek" (2009)
There are a lot of big time stars that have the gore-covered skeletons of early horror films hanging in their closets. Jennifer Aniston has "Leprechaun," Leonardo DiCaprio has "Critters 3," George Clooney has "Return of the Killer Tomatoes," and Michael Fassbender has "Blood Creek." A barely released (years after it was made), nearly unwatchable horror movie directed by the perpetually uneven Joel Schumacher, "Blood Creek" co-stars Dominic Purcell and future Superman Henry Cavill as a pair of brothers who battle a supernatural Nazi played by Fassbender (just in case you thought the actor’s first brush with Nazis of questionable historical accuracy was "Inglourious Basterds"). Fassbender is only seen in all of his roguishly handsome leading man glory during the movie’s creaky prologue, where his Nazi "scholar" is investigating an ancient rune stone that has been discovered in West Virginia. Of course, Fassbender wants to use the stone to dispense evil across the globe, but he ends up being captured and turned into a vengeful ghoul. It’s Fassbender in makeup/CG that then occupies the rest of the movie, covered with scars and gore and Nazi hieroglyphics, before he/it drills into his own head to reveal a third eye. Honestly, Fassbender doesn’t have a whole lot to do—he stalks around like a classic Universal monster, but even in WTF stakes is overshadowed by the reanimated bloodthirsty horse who dispenses with Shea Whigham at one point. But he’s hardly called upon to emote aside from being beyond-the-grave angry, so he can only shoulder so much of the blame. It’s the leaden script and Schumacher’s barely coherent direction that really causes "Blood Creek" to fail. This is one of those back-of-the-filmography curios that only diehard fans (probably those bordering on masochists) should bother exploring. [D]
“Fish Tank” (2009)
Written and directed by the great Andrea Arnold ("Red Road," "Wuthering Heights"), make no mistake, this is newcomer Katie Jarvis’ film (she was discovered on the street, it was her debut and the only film she’s made thus far). Still, Michael Fassbender, who was on the rise at the time, (“Fish Tank” came out the same year as “Inglourious Basterds”), plays a key element in the drama. Jarvis plays Mia, a reckless, volatile and sometimes aggressive 15-year-old girl from a lower class family. Passionate about hip-hop dancing at home when everyone is away, this is Mia’s one true escape from a harsh and underprivileged life in the high rises of an East London ghetto. But things change when her single mom (Kierston Wareing) brings home a charming and handsome new boyfriend Connor (Fassbender). Encouraging and helpful, Connor changes the tempestuous family dynamic for the better briefly, but the intriguing spark between boyfriend and daughter quickly spreads out of control like an unexpectedly violent house fire. To say more is to spoil the film, but suffice to say there are some fascinating and unexpected twists in this classic gritty British realist drama. The Jury Prize-winner at Cannes, Jarvis is outstanding and outshines everyone because it’s her character’s film and she owns it, but Fassbender generously plays his supporting role, keeping it in the pocket and only lashing out when it’s most needed. It must be said, the tension between is mostly coiled up nicely by the actor and its unspoken seductive powers evinces Fassbender at his unshowy best. This is an actor who can express a lot with very little and clearly Hollywood was already, by this stage, more than sold. [B+]
If there’s one thing British director Neil Marshall knows, it’s muck. His movies (like the beloved subterranean monster mash "The Descent") and his television work (he famously directed the "Blackwater" episode of "Game of Thrones") are positively lacquered in grime. The same is true for his underseen "Centurion," in which Fassbender plays Quintus Dias, a centurion soldier who is part of the famous Ninth Legion, a Roman regiment that walked into the Scottish Highlands … and never returned. Fassbender is ostensibly the hero because he’s one of the only members of the Ninth Legion left alive, because he speaks the native Picts’ language, and for much of the movie the actor is covered in blood and mud, running of his life from the villainous natives (Olga Kurylenko plays a wonderfully bad-ass warrior). The actor’s skills aren’t exactly put to the test, since he’s almost exclusively asked to run around and chop people’s heads off (this is a straight-up B-movie genre exercise) although he does get to stretch a little bit when it comes to sequences he shares with Imogen Poots, who plays a young witch. In these scenes he’s allowed a certain amount of sensitivity and compassion, creating an unlikely alliance with a native that leads to a precarious sense of safety as the warrior considers a new life for himself amongst the natives. There are some dumb thrills to be had with the hyper-violent "Centurion," but it was released around the same time as "The Eagle," a movie that covers much of the same historical ground but has a nifty, boys-adventure novel feel (instead of the nearly pornographic levels of bloodshed in "Centurion") and didn’t really find even the niche audience it was going for. It’s not Fassbender’s best movie or performance by a long shot, but it’s still worth watching, if only to see the actor’s action chops post-"300" but before he became one of the X-Men. [C+]
Recently Fassbender reteamed with director and ex-Beta Band-er John Maclean for a second short film, following 2009’s "Man on a Motorcycle." The newer one, "Pitch Black Heist" is a very enjoyable 12-minute two-hander between Fassbender and Irish national treasure Liam Cunningham, and it augurs well for their next collaboration on the upcoming feature-length western, also to star Ben Mendelsohn and Kodi Smit-McPhee, called "Slow West." For now, though, in case all this Fassbender talk has gotten you hot under the collar with no outlet till you can make it to the theater this evening, we’ll leave you with a small dose to tide you over in the shape of this 2003 Guinness commercial for Ireland: