Ralph Fiennes is never going to win an Oscar.
He’s too slippery, too snake-like, too hard to pin down. He plays cruelty for laughs, and uses humor to break your heart. He plays supporting roles with the all-consuming intensity of a lead, and lead roles with the evasiveness of someone who’s just passing through. He’s human category fraud.
But if Fiennes gets overlooked for his irrepressible work in Luca Guadagnino’s “A Bigger Splash,” it won’t be because he was submitted in the wrong race; it’ll be because he appears to be having way too much fun for a drama. Nevertheless, his electric turn as barnstorming bon vivant Harry Hawkes is one of 2016’s best performances. It’s a dance-worthy distillation of everything that has made Fiennes such an enduring star over the last two decades, and — for all of its seeming frivolity — it will endure as a perfect crystallization of this dark moment in our history.
In a year when movie villains were woefully incapable of competing with their real-life counterparts (somehow, Jesse Eisenberg playing Max Landis playing Mark Zuckerberg playing Lex Luthor seems like even less of a threat now than he did back in March), only Hawkes — a coked-up music producer who crashes his ex’s romantic holiday in a dementedly quixotic quest to win her back — was an antagonist worthy of these times.
Fiennes seldom plays contemporary characters, but Harry is nothing if not a man for our moment. Arrogant, possessive, and struggling in the face of his irrelevance, this barrel-chested Caligula arrives on the Italian paradise of Pantelleria as a shadow and the scream of a jet engine. He needs to be loved; he loathes the feeling that people just put up with him. (“We used to be better than brothers,” he barks at Paul, “now you just tolerate me.”) He thinks that Marianne (Tilda Swinton) is owed to him, that he can just take her back. That she’ll want to go. That her resistance is just the latest move in the long game they’ve always been playing.
Essentially Bowie with breasts, Marianne (Tilda Swinton) was Harry’s mistress, his meal ticket, and maybe even his soulmate. And then he all but served her up to Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), a brooding filmmaker who’s been her partner ever since. As the film begins, Marianne is hiding away on the island with Paul and recuperating from a stubborn throat condition, naked and quiet and blissful. But Harry, as if alarmed to his old flame’s happiness like a fire he needs to snuff out, flies in (with his newly discovered sexpot daughter) to fill all of her silences.
And from the moment he lands, Harry is the life of a party that everyone else wants to leave. His exuberance can’t disguise the fact that he’s a pest — you know he’s the antagonist, even when he joyously christens the villa with a show-stopping dance set to The Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue.” Underneath every manic outburst, every hedonistic call to action, everything Harry does is a threat. Just watch the way that Fiennes stares a hole through Marianne as he mouths Mick Jagger’s lyrics: “I will be your knight in shining armor. Coming to your emotional rescue. You will be mine, you will be mine, all mine.”
Of course, it’s not exactly a stretch to buy Fiennes as the bad guy. This is an actor whose breakthrough came by playing one of the most cruel and complex Nazis ever portrayed onscreen, an actor who was even more frightening as a genocidal wizard in a series of YA adaptations than he was as a psychotic serial killer in “Red Dragon.” The more ambiguous characters he inhabited in films like “Quiz Show,” “Spider,” and “Sunshine” have each trended in a downward direction, while the goodness of his heroes in “The Constant Gardener” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” has been a hard-won string of suicidally pyrrhic victories.
But if Harry Hawkes isn’t the most evil character that Fiennes has ever played, he’s as grandiose and pathological as any of them. More than that, he’s also slippery and seductively fun, making him the perfect showcase for why Fiennes has been such an invaluable screen presence for more than 20 years. “A Bigger Splash” suggests that it’s a matter of push and pull: Fiennes plays his bad guys like they’re good guys and his good guys like they’re bad guys — he plays his period characters like they’re modern to the minute, and his contemporary characters like they’ve wandered out of their period trappings.
His performances stack a veneer of British sophistication against the primitivism of universal male behavior. Harry was ripped out of an Oscar Wilde comedy, injected full of amphetamines and rock & roll, and parachuted into the sexiest play that Harold Pinter play never wrote. The guy is a wild swirl of histories. When he calls Marianne “the woman of the century,” it’s hard to know which century he means.
Stuck between nostalgia for his glory days and naïveté about his immediate future, Harry is the most animated of the many roles that Fiennes was born to play. He also lacks the grace that the person playing him wields with such controlled expertise. Stuck in the ’80s (and still high on the coke he snorted then), Harry nevertheless comes to Pantelleria with a claim on Marianne’s future, unaware that his radical brand of truth-telling exposes him as a fraud at every turn. “The world isn’t ready for your honesty,” Paul tells him at one point, but the truth is the world simply has no need for it.
Fiennes’ gifts are masterfully played against his character’s insufficiencies, the frisson between the actor and his role resulting in a perfect storm of male id gone rogue. Harry is so incensed at the idea that someone might have domesticated his beloved Marianne that he can’t take her at her own terms, can’t see that she’s genuinely happy for what might be the first time in her life (“I’ll always be grateful to you for Paul,” Marianne tells him in a diss so earth-shaking you could measure it on the Richter scale). He needs to impose his will or die trying, and nobody is better than Fiennes at embodying men who can’t accept the ways in which their principles — however twisted — have outlived their time. That’s why even his most evil parts are a little tragic, and why a potentially decent chap like Harry would sooner drown than learn how to tread water.
This film’s bacchanalian surface hides four of the year’s very best turns (Schoenaerts is cagey, Swinton is predictably transcendent, and the sneaky-talented Johnson is the glue that makes the whole thing stick together), but Fiennes emerges as the ringleader of this sun-kissed circus. The centrifugal force of his selfishness is so intense that it helps elevate a light romp into a volatile portrait of narcissism. Harry’s vanity is absolutely complete, and that’s what makes it real.
And if that’s not enough to earn Fiennes his first Oscar, his incredible dance moves deserve to put him over the top. These gifs should be the only awards campaign that Fox Searchlight needs. For your consideration in all categories: