Opinion

The weird and wonderful divergences of Colin Farrell

Is this the actor's best comeback ever?

The last time we saw Colin Farrell play a colorful supporting bad guy in a superhero movie was nearly 20 years ago, at a time when he seemed to be everywhere.

Having just appeared as the crazed assassin Bullseye opposite Ben Affleck in Daredevil, Farrell underwent the young actor's rite of passage, being mentored by Al Pacino in The Recruit; not long after, he carried the Joel Schumacher thriller Phone Booth almost completely solo, and suited up for the summer action movie S.W.A.T. All of these 2003 movies made money — yet only a year or two later, Farrell was already being labeled as in need of a comeback.

Maybe, with his roles in blockbuster-to-be The Batman and the quieter After Yang, both out Friday, his need for a comeback has come up again. After all, Farrell's last few movies — the young-adult sci-fi picture Voyagers (forgettable), the soapy assassin drama Ava (misguided), and the Disney fantasy Artemis Fowl (nearly unwatchable) — had the distinctive pattern of a slump.

As Tim Grierson wrote for MEL nearly five years ago, though, Farrell is a man of endless second chances — not because he's constantly down and out, but because his career has never sustained the kind of extended hot streak that lifted similarly once-young and always-charismatic stars like Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Brad Pitt, or even his Daredevil costar Ben Affleck. With his constant stream of great movies (In Bruges; The Lobster), character parts (Widows; The Gentlemen), and dreck (Winter's Tale; the Total Recall remake), he's been more like Jude Law or Ewan McGregor — other U.K. actors with long and impressive careers that never really included worldwide megastardom.

Also akin to those performers, Farrell occasionally takes roles that deliberately flout his handsome charm with weirder, more ostentatious behavior and get-ups. But in the later part of his career, Farrell has seemed to do his best when he pushes himself to even greater extremes, on both ends of his range. On one side, he's become a quiet muse to directors like Yorgos Lanthimos, mastering the slightly remote humanity of dark comedies like The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and Martin McDonagh, who operates in a more overtly comic register while still utilizing his star's deadpan. On the other end, Farrell will don a plaid tracksuit, oversized spectacles, and a newsboy cap to play the ringleader for a group of young YouTube gangsters in Guy Ritchie's caper The Gentlemen. He doesn't always spring either persona when expected: for consummate weirdo Tim Burton, he played a gentle father in Dumbo, while the second season of the deeply serious HBO drama True Detective, he let his blackly funny screw-ups go over the top.

Farrell's new movies out this week see that strategy reaching an apex. On the very same day, he's chewing scenery from behind layers of makeup as the Penguin, a gangster who crosses paths with Robert Pattinson's Batman (surely the only time he's shared a role with Danny DeVito), while on the screen in the theater next door (or streaming on Showtime) he's giving a thoughtful performance as a taciturn father tending to his family's broken robot in After Yang.

Some things don't change that much. Farrell is an undisputed highlight of The Batman, just as he was in Daredevil, and for a similar reason: In a violent movie where the titular superhero broods grimly, Farrell punctures the seriousness around him. Yet because The Batman is more effective as a drama than Daredevil, Farrell's comic relief works better, too. His Penguin hangs out on the margins of the story, up to no good yet flabbergasted by the Batman's attention. He doesn't want to kill his nemesis so much as swat him away and be left to his own grotesque pleasures. Despite the thinning hair and padding, Farrell is less made up than DeVito's Penguin; the showiest part of the character is his gravelly, American-accented gangster voice, all "sweethaht" and rough cackles. He serves as a Gotham City criminal default: venal, corrupt, and utterly at home.

After Yang — a low-key sci-fi drama rated PG, from mononymous writer-director Kogonada — requires a paradoxically lighter touch for material that is, in its way, heftier and more ambitious than the three-hour Batflick. Farrell plays Jake, who tasks himself with securing a repair for the family's android Yang (Justin H. Min), who has mysteriously shut down. Yang has been serving as a babysitter and cultural connection for their Chinese daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), who is adopted. Jake isn't sure whether to mourn Yang or fight for him, and dipping into the robot's recorded memories doesn't clarify matters.

Farrell's performance in After Yang is unvarnished, and all the trickier for it. Beyond his bushy dad mustache, he's exposed, unable to rely on crowd-pleasing overacting or the smoldering of a young man. It's a performance that has to sit and sink in, much as the family's evolving grief does — requiring stillness that doesn't slip into the intentionally awkward formality of a Lanthimos film. In other words, Farrell must appear to do relatively little, while holding the movie's emotional center. One scene, hardly one of the movie's biggest, has Jake visiting his neighbor's family to ask them some questions about Yang, and Farrell conveys reluctance, desperation, and a heavy dose of shame over his own prejudices in the single, awkward interaction.

Certainly, there are other actors who could work this small. But Farrell has enough charisma to shine through the Penguin's scarred self-indulgence — which makes it all the more remarkable to see him giving one of his most subtle performances at virtually the same time. Maybe the younger version of Farrell would have tried to balance out these two oppositional qualities into work more befitting a movie star in waiting. Thankfully, he's instead embraced that weird divergence and logged what could be his best year yet.

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