Not that the man himself gives a damn, but it’s taken me a while to come around to Colin Farrell. Maybe it’s partly because, as a fellow resident of the same affluent Dublin suburb he moved to at age ten, Farrell is the closest thing to a neighborhood movie star that I have, and you tend to judge more critically those you’re fairly sure you’ve queued behind at your local Spar. Or maybe it’s partly the corollary to that famous Irish sense of humor: the less well known but no less prevalent begrudgery of success (the “God, you think you’re great, don’t you?” syndrome). But it is definitely also because, over the 20 years of his acting career, the quality of the films Farrell has appeared in has varied wildly, as well as the quality of his performances within those films. And those two phenomena have not always been in sync: Farrell has been poor in some good films, and strong in some weak ones —in short, he has been erratic, and where his highs, until recently anyway, were fairly high, his lows were true stinkers. And so it’s been easy to look over his career and see only the negatives —the gurning Bullseye in the awful “Daredevil,” the floundering Terry in the awful “Cassandra’s Dream,” the visibly uncomfortable, bottle-blond Alexander in the awful “Alexander.”
But among those terrible roles are films that show Farrell, marshalled properly (something Mark Steven Johnson, Woody Allen and Oliver Stone respectively spectacularly failed to do in the abovementioned movies) not only could be good, he wanted to be good. He made some interesting choices, where his performances, like his accent, didn’t feel precarious or out of place. He worked with Steven Spielberg, Terrence Malick and Michael Mann. He took supporting roles in between major bids for stardom, and was often better in those films than in his name-above-the-title vehicles. In fact, now that it feels like he’s abandoned the pursuit of megastardom, cannily literalized in 2002’s “Minority Report” which saw him as the cocksure, gum-snapping young buck chasing down Tom Cruise, he’s been all the better for it. His output is still erratic (let’s not forget that “Winter’s Tale” was just last year), but his good performances now radically outweigh his bad, and more importantly, they are getting better. For this particular denier, that trend culminated in a standout, revelatory turn in Yorgos Lanthimos‘ Cannes winner “The Lobster” that by rights should finally move any remaining Undecideds (and I realize I’m behind the curve here) firmly into the Yes camp.
And of course, this past weekend Season 2 of “True Detective” started airing. It’s too early to tell if Farrell will be the recipient of a Matthew McConaughey-style reevaluation as a result, but it feels like the perfect opportunity to take a look through Farrell’s back catalogue, and instead of snickering at the lowlights, to notice just how many highlights there have been. If I’ve been guilty of underrating the actor for a long time, let this stand as my reversal; here are five of the roles that make me realize I might have been wrong about Colin Farrell…
If an actor was certain of a breakout and got to choose, out of all directors, on whose watch that would be, it’s unlikely he’d pick Joel Schumacher. And yet such was Colin Farrell’s lot —at the time, Schumacher was pretty toxic, not just for killing the ‘Batman‘ franchise three years prior, but also for the drastic underperformance of his two subsequent films, “8MM” and “Flawless.” But if Schumacher would not get the hit he so desperately needed with “Tigerland” (which was a box-office disaster), he would “discover” a new star. An odd slant on the Vietnam war movie, “Tigerland” takes place entirely in a Stateside training facility for soldiers before they’re shipped out to fight, and very likely die, in a war that is generally already believed lost. And if it never really achieves the heft or gravitas of other films in this arena, it did give Farrell, then best known as a regular on soapy BBC TV dramedy “Ballykissangel,” a gift of a role. As Private Bozz, the anti-authoritarian draftee whose cynical anti-Vietnam stance (he makes a name for himself finding loopholes that allow soldiers to avoid serving) is offset by an unshakeable loyalty to his friends, Farrell gets to play the most interesting kind of hero: a tortured, disillusioned, reluctant one, fighting to hold on to what little idealism he has. In the wider scheme of things, “Tigerland” is not a great movie, but it is solid and unusually heartfelt for Schumacher, and what it lacks in nuance (the director has never knowingly turned in a subtle film), it makes up for in a simplistic but emotive understanding of the mechanics of masculine friendship and rivalry in the shadow of a nationally emasculating war. Farrell rises to the challenge with gusto, and his innate charisma and good looks suit the part entirely. Even if no one else saw it, Hollywood casting directors did, and it essentially made his career.
See Also: “Phone Booth” (2002): Farrell’s reteam with Schumacher sees him face up to the challenge of a single-location thriller that’s nearly a one-man-show rather well. Despite a silly third act, it’s again one of the filmmaker’s more successful genre forays, suggesting that teaming with Farrell brings out the best in him. (Farrell also cameoed in Schumacher’s “Veronica Guerin“).
The debut feature of theater director John Crowley (whose “Brooklyn” should be a major player in the awards season later this year), “Intermission” is exactly the sort of film that should sink a neophyte: a sprawling ensemble piece mired in an unshakeable (and to some audiences, incomprehensible) Dublin argot. Instead, Crowley makes a virtue of the film’s cultural specificity, taking advantage of the sweeping scope by casting a literal who’s-who of Irish (and Scottish) acting talent, and investing each of the story’s many interlocking strands with a kind of authenticity it’s rare to see in a black comedy. But punchiest (literally) and most memorable of all the many roles is Farrell’s petty criminal Lehiff, particularly his first scene, which opens the film. In it, we meet Lehiff charming the pants off a coyly smiling shopgirl, talking in that recognizably Irish mix of the lyrical and the profane regarding romance and soulmates and such things, prior to punching her full in the face and pillaging the till. It’s a dark, funny, lightning-quick pivot that not only sets the tone for the film to come, but encapsulates the gamut of Farrell’s abilities in a couple of minutes and embodies the very epicenter of his appeal: he can be handsome, charming and softly appealing with those big brown eyes beneath those expressive brows, but simultaneously he has a thread of volatility and nervous energy that could very well manifest in thuggish violence. This role also marked Farrell’s first real return to Dublin (not counting the very brief “Veronica Guerin” cameo) and his first time working with an Irish director since his Hollywood breakout, and it’s a pleasure to see him relax into the language and cadences of a well-written, gift-of-the-gab Dublin character, rather than trying to suppress his accent or fit it onto a character it simply doesn’t suit. Both his performance and the film itself deserve a much warmer box office reception than it got.
See Also: Another of Farrell’s collaborations with an Irish director bore fruit in 2009 with the similarly little-seen, financially underperforming “Ondine” from Neil Jordan. It’s a difficult role, required to anchor a mystical, dreamy story in some sense of the real, but Farrell’s inherent earthiness works to balance the films more whimsical tendencies, and makes it an offbeat charmer that’s a win in the uneven filmographies of both director and star.
“In Bruges” (2008)
For whatever reason, prior to 2008 it was really only Irish directors who could see Farrell’s comedic potential. More recently, a few Hollywood productions have let him explore a more tongue-in-cheek side to his persona (“Horrible Bosses” and “Fright Night” for example), but before that in American films, he was largely squeezed into straight-up hero or classic villain roles. It was “In Bruges” that changed all that. From British/Irish director Martin McDonagh, who’d already had massive transatlantic success with plays like “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” and “The Cripple of Inishmaan” and had already won an Academy Award for his short film “Six Shooter,” the hitman black comedy was not just the arrival of an exciting new director, but also marked a refreshing change of pace for Farrell, whose split personality of rugged charm, soulfulness and hair-trigger volatility found its most perfect vehicle to date. As Ray, the haunted hitman sent to cool his heels in Belgium along with his partner Ken (Brendan Gleeson) following a botched job, Farrell is truly terrific: hangdog, self-centered, irritating, explosive but with a kernel of rusty goodness inside him that makes his friendship with Ken and his inchoate hunger for some sort of redemption genuinely affecting. But it also mines his little-showcased talent for verbal dexterity, which Farrell is certainly most at home with when he can use his natural accent, as here, but which requires more than just an Irish passport to be able to pull off. In fact, McDonagh’s hyperreal, quickfire verbosity would probably sound like gravel in a cement mixer in most mouths, even those of other Irish actors, but with Farrell’s shifty quick-wittedness, it sounds as natural as breathing. And furthermore Farrell gives Ray a soulfulness that belies the verbal dash and makes what could be a clinical exercise in cleverness into something with a little more heart. “In Bruges” was the first film that truly overturned the idea of Farrell as a middling actor: as good as the script is (and it was Oscar-nominated), Farrell’s take on it makes it an even better film.
See Also: Farrell would reteam with McDonagh on his follow-up “Seven Psychopaths” (2012), a very flawed film in which self-awareness of its faults (characters talk about the lack of well-written women, the difficulties of staging a final act shootout, the silliness of Hollywood’s obsession with “psychos”) cannot quite excuse those faults. But Farrell is still pretty good, at least until the finale when the wheels come irrevocably off, and his portrayal of the alcoholic, opportunistic screenwriter proxy is definitely worth checking out, especially in the film’s genuinely funny first half.
“Miss Julie” (2014)
Liv Ullmann‘s recent adaptation of Strindberg‘s famous examination of the sado-masochistic cruelty of rigid class systems is the film on this list least likely to ever get seen by a huge number of people. Perhaps it’s the nature of its stage origins, or the ostensible “worthiness” of the project, or perhaps it’s because the film is so bruisingly effective as to be almost overpowering. But that’s an enormous shame, as the film is incontrovertible proof that Farrell has an immense amount to give, not as a movie star, but as an actor in this most actorly of enterprises. Featuring a force-of-nature Jessica Chastain and a more muted but no less intensely committed Samantha Morton, the film would nonetheless simply topple over without a strong performance from Farrell. Opposite two of the best actresses of his generation, he needs to reach heights (and plow depths) we have probably never seen from him before. Miraculously, he does, which makes “Miss Julie” a towering powerhouse of performance, so much so that the sheer intensity is shattering, occasionally almost too much to witness. Farrell plays Jean, the servant and foil to Miss Julie (Chastain), the insecure yet haughty lady of the manor in which he works. At first he’s the butt of Julie’s frivolous and mean-spirited games of social one-upmanship, but gradually the tables turn to reveal Jean’s subservience as an act, or at least as only half the story, as his manipulative and exploitative side bubbles then roars to the surface. It’s such a psychological high-wire act, unfolding with such austere formal commitment (usually in claustrophobic, locked-off medium-shot interiors) as to become almost unbearable, but if Chastain’s is the titanic performance, Farrell’s is the iceberg on which Julie wrecks herself —all the more lethal for how much is concealed.
See Also: It’s such an outlier in Farrell’s filmography that it’s hard to know where you’d go after “Miss Julie,” especially since if you like Farrell in period duds, the further options are mostly things like the terrible “Winter’s Tale” and the immensely disappointing Robert Towne movie “Ask the Dust,” along with WWII-era tales “Hart’s War” and “The Way Back,” none of which we can wholeheartedly recommend. Your best bet would be to spool back a few centuries to Terrence Malick‘s “The New World,” (beware you don’t overshoot and end up at “Alexander”) though it’s apples and oranges to “Miss Julie” in every other way.
“The Lobster” (2015)
It’s a little unfair to put a film on this list that most will not yet have seen, but frankly there are not going to be many opportunities to talk up Yorgos Lanthimos‘ brilliant “The Lobster” that we don’t take. Also, it felt impossible for me to ignore, as this is the tipping point title after which I consider myself a genuine Farrell fan. The lead here, David, is an extraordinarily difficult role to play —while the other supporting turns can show up briefly and be relatively one-note (though the tremendous cast invariably do a lot more with them), it falls on Farrell’s shoulders to negotiate the film’s rhythms throughout its two very different halves. However, playing the audience surrogate in this bizarre world which is still one in which David himself must feel relatively at home, Farrell is somehow consummately believable. And he is also twistedly, deadpan funny in only the way that someone in on the joke and yet playing it straight-faced can be —witness the beautiful, deeply hilarious hesitation when David is asked to define his sexuality. Much was made of Farrell’s “dadbod” paunch in the film and his willingness to transform his physical appearance, but it’s his psychological transformation that really deserves praise; he has rarely before been convincingly cast as an everyman, as though the ineffable fact of his charisma makes such a thing a struggle. But Farrell, who can be prone to overacting, using those beetly eyebrows to telegraph emotion like semaphore, underplays here perfectly: he tamps his starriness right down and beds into this off-kilter world just as wholly as he beds into his comfy body. And so this role feels like the missing puzzle piece to an acceptance of him as a complete actor: we don’t just root for him because he’s the hero or hiss at him because he’s the villain, we are him. Even within this most absurd world, Farrell is compellingly, touchingly ordinary and it makes “The Lobster” his most extraordinary role to date.
See Also: There’s not a lot comparable to “The Lobster” in Farrell’s (or anyone’s) filmography, but to see him ugly up to more grotesque effect, you could always check out “Horrible Bosses” which is fun enough until it loses steam, while the black comic vein of Lanthimos’ film is maybe closest to a more surreal take on Farrell’s collaborations with Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths”) inasmuch as it’s close to anything at all.
These are by no means Farrell’s only good roles, but in addition to those recommended as alternates in the list above, Michael Mann’s “Miami Vice” deserves a shout out —not just because it’s an unfairly maligned movie, but because Farrell is good in it, rustling up palpable chemistry with love interest Gong Li, if not with co-star Jamie Foxx. His first big post-breakout role in Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report” is also a strong turn; Peter Weir‘s “The Way Back” is a bit turgid, but Farrell’s borderline psychotic character is one of its livelier elements; while more recently he was enjoyably off-the-leash in the schlocky “Fright Night” and more controlled in tasteful supporting roles in both Scott Cooper‘s “Crazy Heart” and John Lee Hancock’s “Saving Mr Banks.” Of his rising-star phase films, “The Recruit” with Al Pacino is surprisingly ok, and while “S.W.A.T.” is pretty dumb, it functions fine as mindless guilty-pleasure fun. For the next eight weeks or so, he’ll be on your small screens as volatile cop Ray Velcoro in “True Detective”; long-gestating serial killer flick “Solace,” with Anthony Hopkins and Abbie Cornish, is due to bow at some point this year too; as will the terrific “The Lobster,” so any way you look at it, 2015 has all the makings of a banner year for the star. Hope you enjoyed this whistle-stop tour, feel free to tell us your favorite Farrell role, which if any gave you your Damscene conversion moment, or why I’m way off base about any of above, in the comments below.