Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Best Performances of Tom Hardy, Star of Mad Max: Fury Road

Tom Hardy in a scene from Christopher Nolan's "Inception"

Tom Hardy has arrived. With today's release of Mad Max: Fury Road, the English actor is officially a movie star, headlining a big-budget Hollywood production for the first time. I've yet to see the movie—something I intend to remedy this weekend (a review should be up in this space next week)—but to fans of Hardy's work, his presence in the lead is both highly gratifying and rather surprising. The 37-year-old's brief but extraordinary career has thus far been characterized by a superior slipperiness, an uncanny ability to slide from one role to the next, submerging himself so deep into each performance that the actor disappears and only the character remains. It is odd, if nonetheless intriguing, to envision him plying his trade in a high-powered reboot of an age-old franchise, a genre that typically exalts star power and relies on brand recognition. (Hardy has of course appeared in summer tentpoles before, but only those directed by Christopher Nolan, an auteur masquerading as a blockbuster filmmaker.)

Not that I'm critical of Hardy taking the part, or accusing him of selling out. On the contrary: I'm thrilled that he's certain to gain increased exposure, and I'm eager to see how his brand of peerless subtlety might mesh with George Miller's darkly explosive style. (Also whetting appetites: He's starring this October as the murderous Kray twins in Brian Helgeland's Legend, and then Christmas heralds the arrival of Alejandro González Iñárritu's The Revenant, in which Hardy plays opposite Leonardo DiCaprio.) But I also want to take the opportunity to see how we got here by highlighting some of Hardy's brilliant performances in films that mainstream viewers may have missed. To that end, I am excluding his slyly comic turn in Nolan's Inception, in which he effortlessly pilfered a number of scenes in the context of a large ensemble, because that movie needs no introduction. And because I'm restricting myself to cinema, I am also omitting his delightful performance in Season 2 of the BBC's Peaky Blinders, in which he devours scenery as a violent and treacherous Jewish gangster.

With those arbitrary criteria in place, allow me to present the Manifesto's five favorite Tom Hardy performances. All of these are wildly disparate portrayals—differing dramatically in tone, physicality, and vocal affectation—but they are nevertheless threaded together by invisible technique, as well as a gifted actor's commendable commitment to his craft.

5. Bob Saginowski in The Drop (2014). Right from his opening voiceover ("I just tend bar"), Bob Saginowski presents himself as a blunt, uncomplicated bartender. But just as there are no simple characters in The Drop, there are no straightforward performances in Hardy's filmography. His turn here is a cunningly layered portrayal, initially establishing Bob as a taciturn everyman before gradually revealing the dangerous underworld figure beneath. Yet the pleasure of Hardy's performance lies not just in its inherent mysteriousness, but in its warmth. His hunched stride eventually gives way to a coiled, menacing muscularity, and his slow Brooklyn drawl camouflages his intelligence and intimidation. But he also exhibits true tenderness, imbuing quieter moments opposite Noomi Rapace and John Ortiz with color and curiosity. Bob is a remorseless killer, but he's also a pretty nice guy who respects his church and stumbles to rehabilitate a wounded pit bull. That's a lot to handle, but Hardy makes the character work, somehow spinning seemingly contradictory qualities into two halves of the same whole.

4. Michael Peterson/Charles Bronson in Bronson (2009). Nicolas Winding Refn's Bronson is not an especially good movie, but it does house Hardy's first powerhouse performance. As Michael Peterson, a career criminal who rechristens himself Charles Bronson (after, well, you know), he is a hurricane of destruction, terrorizing everything and everyone in his path. Most frequently, that means prison guards, whom Peterson brawls with repeatedly, greasing himself up and taunting them before erupting with utter ferocity. Hardy's physical transformation is astonishing; with his bald head, full mustache, and rippling torso, he looks like a Greek God cast down from Mount Olympus. Yet he also makes Peterson weirdly charming, a man nobly committed to the pursuit of violence as a higher calling. He fights not because he's angry, but because he enjoys it. And Hardy takes evident glee in essaying such a wild and deranged figure, in the process turning brutality into art.

3. Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (2012). OK, you might have heard of this one. But because the dominant figure from Nolan's Dark Knight films remains Heath Ledger's Joker, Hardy's thrilling turn as the villain of the trilogy's capper often goes overlooked. That's a little crazy, because it seems impossible to look past Bane, with his bulging biceps and freaky mask that obscures his face and, more importantly, muffles his voice. It's the latter quality that received the most attention, with many critics grumbling about the difficulty of discerning his dialogue. They weren't listening. Hardy's elocution is masterful, an immaculate burble that poisons every carefully chosen word with whispery malevolence. Combine that with his robust physique—Hardy is only 5'9", but he seems to tower over everyone else in The Dark Knight Rises—and he fashions Bane into one of the most mesmerizing screen villains in recent memory. At one point, a lesser character limply asserts, "I'm in charge here," to which Bane responds, "Do you feel in charge?" The question is obviously rhetorical. With Hardy around, everyone else is subservient, to the point where even the audience feels compelled to bow.

2. Ivan Locke in Locke (2014). Perhaps the most actorly performance on this list, Hardy's work in Locke is necessarily visible—there is no other way, given that he is the only figure who appears on screen, never budging from the driver's seat of his cloistering BMW. But where a less confident thespian might have felt compelled to mug for the camera in order to compensate for Locke's demonstrable lack of action, Hardy somehow retreats further inward. Ivan Locke's life is an absolute disaster (and one of his own making), but rather than appearing sniveling and pathetic, Hardy invests his wounded antihero with a quiet, helpless dignity. Locke is a man who relies obsessively on absolute precision in all phases of his life—his job as an architect, his home life, even his driving—which makes Hardy the perfect choice for the role. Never before have the actor's meticulous diction and haunted eyes been put to such devastating effect. As the movie progresses and Locke continues his solitary journey down the motorway, you can practically see his soul dissipating into nothingness. It's Hardy's greatest magic trick yet: The camera never loses sight of him, yet he still manages to disappear.

1. Tommy Conlon in Warrior (2011). Hardy is a charismatic screen presence by nature, which is what makes his acting so amazing; every time he vanishes into a role, he imperceptibly suppresses that charisma. But I'll concede that, if you try hard enough, you can occasionally catch a glimpse of the remarkably talented performer operating beneath the surface.

Not in Warrior. There is no actor here. There's barely even a character, just a husk of a former fighter shuffling through his day. Then, one morning, Tommy Conlon walks into a fighting ring, and a demon comes out, a blur of violence and hostility. Hardy's physicality has always been striking, but here it's downright scary, with six-pack abs that are less sexy than admonitory. Don't come near me, his sculpted body announces. You'll get hurt.

But this is only part of his performance. The most revealing moments in Warrior are not the fight scenes, which are ably choreographed but undistinguished, but the loaded conversations that Tommy shares with his brother (Joel Edgerton) and father (Nick Nolte). Tommy doesn't say much—when he does talk, he speaks in a gruff Philadelphia snarl—but in his sullen silence, Hardy evokes a man shouldering an enormous burden and tormented by an unspeakable past. This renders his occasional flashes of compassion raw and powerful, searing shards of emotion that land with devastating impact before Tommy withdraws into his self-made shell.

Warrior, then, features the quintessential Tom Hardy performance. It is a marvel of physical and vocal technique, but also an illustration of his unrivaled ability for inhabiting his characters as a second skin. Yet the most exciting thing about his career is how compressed it is. Consider that all five movies on this list came out within the past six years. This suggests the impossible notion that Hardy, as great as he may be, is just now entering his prime. We do not know what he yet has in store for us, but it is safe to assume that we will be amazed, even as we struggle to spot the actor himself, the man working hidden miracles in plain sight.

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