Audiences have watched Daniel Radcliffe grow up on the big screen since 2001, the year he made his debut in John Boorman's The Tailor of Panama and followed that up with his star-making turn in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone; he spent the next decade at Hogwarts (taking a detour in Rod Hardy's December Boys in 2007) before graduating and moving on to the next phase of his career, where his roles have taken a turn for the weird and weirder ever since. He showed up in horror films a'la Horns, The Woman in Black, and Victor Frankeinstein. He played Beat poetry supremo Allen Ginsberg in John Krokidas' Kill Your Darlings. Then came 2016's Swiss Army Man, the decade's best film about friendship between a man and a farting corpse.
Lately, viewers have had the privilege of seeing Radcliffe go higher and lower in two separate movies: Francis Anan's Escape From Pretoria, where he stars as the anti-apartheid activist Tim Jenkin, and Jason Lei Howden's Guns Akimbo, where he plays sadsack programmer and anti-online troll activist Miles. Miles entertains himself at night by harassing rabid fans of a live-streamed deathmatch game called Skizm, which puts him on the gamemakers' radar and earns him a prime spot as a contestant on its next stream. (Also, they bolt a pair of pistols to his hands, which makes every action he takes, from putting on pants to texting, nigh-impossible without help.) It's an outlandish death sentence compared to Jenkin's grueling 12-year prison term.
For Radcliffe, outlandish works. As an adult, it's practically his brand, but really it's his mission statement: He appears to pick characters who are harder to empathize with at a glance. Ten years ago, when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part II rolled into theaters, the expectation was that Radcliffe would parlay his franchise success into films like Escape From Pretoria, not Guns Akimbo, or Swiss Army Man, or Horns. But these are the movies that define him, so much so that Escape From Pretoria, a biopic molded after a prison thriller, reads as an outlier instead of the norm. Message-driven pictures with real-world connections would have been the obvious pivot for Radcliffe after bidding farewell to magic. It's a natural career path: Star in a blockbuster. Build up your profile. Take that carved-out identity and become an even bigger prototypical star.
The leap from Potter to 2012's The Woman in Black, styled in the manner of a Hammer gothic horror film, and especially 2013's Horns, an adaptation of Joe Hill's same-named novel under the direction of splatter-happy French filmmaker Alexandre Aja, came as an understandable jolt. In the former, Radcliffe plays a lawyer who runs afoul of a vengeful spirit in Edwardian-era England. In the latter, Radcliffe plays a man wrongly accused of raping and murdering his own girlfriend, and who also wakes up after a bender to find that he's grown a pair of, well, horns that force people around him to spill their darkest innermost secrets to him. (Snakes follow him everywhere he goes, too.) Horns is bleak, bloody, and graphically sexual; his co-star, Juno Temple, walked him through their sex scenes together. The Boy Who Lived had grown up seemingly overnight.
Radcliffe followed these two pictures with the rom-com What If?, but put another notch on his horror belt with 2015's Victor Frankenstein, which felt more expected than a lead part in a straight-ahead romance. Less expected: Swiss Army Man. Not only does Swiss Army Man give audiences a glimpse of Radcliffe's bare, hirsute behind, the whole thing is written around a fart-joke-as-metaphor about human shyness and openness between friends. The movie inspired walk-outs at its Sundance premiere, not quite the reaction either Radcliffe or co-directing duo Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert might've anticipated. Who walks out on Harry Potter?
Radcliffe's filmography comprises enough roles with off-putting personality traits that there's a clear definition of what a Daniel Radcliffe movie even is. Seeing his name on a cast list almost guarantee he's playing someone you wouldn't willingly associate with, or if you did, you might not especially like them as much as you co-exist with them. Miles, for instance, isn't the worst of the worst, but when he isn't trashing strangers on Skizm, he's creeping on his ex's Instagram page. Frankly, neither of these hobbies are healthy. In Horns, Ignatius strikes as a perfectly cool guy to hang out with, or he would be if not for his devilish accoutrements or the snakes. (He plays Igor in Victor Frankenstein, and Igor isn't cool at all. The dude robs graves.)
Radcliffe seeks out repellent types on purpose, though not necessarily for repellence's sake. Even Manny, the turgid, flatulent carcass he portrays in Swiss Army Man, has his good qualities; he shows protagonist Hank (Paul Dano) how to be vulnerable (in this context, by passing gas in front of other people). Ignatius avenges his dead girlfriend, reconciles with his estranged brother, and makes the world a little more honest, a net gain even though honesty leads to bedlam and violence. Miles teaches rabid Skizm fans the virtues kindness and compassion, albeit at the business end of blazing firearms; it's a contradictory lesson taught with a body count and a bullet count, but a valuable lesson nonetheless.
If given a choice, you likely wouldn't spend time with any of these folks, but each of the guys Radcliffe inhabits have unassuming merits beneath their exterior flaws: assorted neuroses, drug addiction, lack of ambition, the absence of a pulse. Jenkin, industrious, just, and moral, is by far an easier ask. He's a victim of the state, imprisoned for fighting systemic oppression, a more admirable role and a more admirable man on paper. That's what makes him less impressive as a Radcliffe character, though. His gallery of bummer, low-down characters demand that viewers do genuine work to care, to invest themselves in his performances, to see humanity in people you'd either casually judge or ignore. (No one notices the dead).
That's a message befitting Radcliffe's boyhood wizarding image: Judge people by what's in their hearts, not who they are on the outside. Ultimately, the incongruities between the wonder of his past and the slackerdom of his present are actually vital to his success as an actor. His characters' escalating unlikeability has distinguished him more over the last decade than a predictable course of prestige projects.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.