It’s not easy for genre films to garner award-season attention, even at a time when the pejorative pseudonym for B-movies and fanboy favorites can be applied to almost anything that’s playing at the multiplex. But roles have proven golden in the past for Christoph Waltz in “Inglourious Basterds” and Tommy Lee Jones in “The Fugitive.”
This season, Liam Neeson, Christopher Walken and Mark Ruffalo have turned in great performances in genre fare, elevating the material with their nuanced performances.
Take Joe Carnahan’s “The Grey,” the seemingly routine survival thriller advertised as “Liam Neeson vs. wolves!” The Oscar-nominated star of “Schindler’s List,” lately known for action fare, embraced the role while grieving over the death of his wife, Natasha Richardson.
“I cried my eyes out for joy and also I could see the potential of a catharsis,” Neeson recalls about reading the script about a suicidal widower and wolf hunter who leads a band of plane crash survivors through the Alaskan wilderness. “Our first day of rehearsals I said to everybody ‘Hey, here’s the reason I’m doing this and I love you all for being here.’ That sounds very sentimental but I meant it.”
Walken and Sam Rockwell transcended genre limitations in “Seven Psychopaths,” as did Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis in “Looper” and Ruffalo as the Hulk in “The Avengers.” On the femme front, Jennifer Lawrence and Anne Hathaway earned raves for “The Hunger Games” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” but also have leading roles in more traditional Oscar fare this season — “The Silver Linings Playbook” and “Les Miserables,” respectively.
And Brad Pitt went gritty in Andrew Dominik’s “Killing Them Softly,” playing a hit man whose professional struggles mirror America’s 2008 economic crisis.
“I needed someone to play a prick,” the writer-director explains about casting Pitt. “It’s an opportunity for him to take a holiday from himself. Often when you ask people to play the exact opposite of who they are, they really go for it. At the same time there is a certain coldness to Brad. It’s not something I’ve seen much in his work.”
Dominik maintains that, when done properly, genre films offer unique opportunities for thematic resonance.
“The crime movie is a portrait of capitalism in its most unvarnished form,” Dominik says. “Maybe that’s the appeal. That’s the genre where it’s perfectly acceptable for your main characters to be motivated solely by the desire for money.”
Thesps discover damaged good | Thesps weigh reel-life choice | Great performances in genre movies | Minors show their pluck in grownup fare | Seniors grab center stage | Roles all over the map in this ‘Atlas’ | Repeat contenders