He was sexy, edgy and charismatic. From his Stateside breakout in Tigerland onwards, casting Colin Farrell was a no-brainer; he was a blockbuster leading man, right? In the early 2000s, the kid from Castleknock was everywhere. Films like S.W.A.T. and The Recruit were false starts as a star for Colin, and for a period, a mix of flops and bad headlines left his career on relatively shaky ground. While Farrell’s range has enabled him to have a successful career up and down the Hollywood ladder over the last twenty years, an actor open to odd indie dramas and IP cash ins alike, it’s the roles that allow him to be vulnerable, lonely and distressed where he has consistently shined the brightest.
In 2022, Farrell has given strong, sad individual performances in both After Yang and The Banshees of Inisherin, with two very different characters overlapping in how they deal with deeply personal heartbreaks. A critical darling and a local lad done well, Farrell’s sensitive screen presence has enabled him to deliver on his early promise, becoming one of the most acclaimed actors of recent times.
That emotional aspect has been essential to Farrell from the very beginning. One of his inspirations to take up acting came after E.T. The Extra Terrestrial made him cry as a kid. Not because the horrible alien wretch was too garish to look at for a hammerless Farrell, but because the performance of Henry Thomas as isolated latch-key kid Elliott moved him to tears.
I was taken away completely to another world. It inspired in me all sorts of thoughts, emotions, and it has stayed with me very much. E.T. really did it for me.
After finding fame, Farrell was tabloid catnip in the early 2000s. A string of high-profile partners including Britney Spears and Demi Moore, a gagged sex tape and the then-salacious scandal where Farrell was stalked by a sex worker created the reputation of the actor as sex-crazed rogue about town. The ‘bad boy’ label though isn’t only about negative headlines. The key to the bad boy is that feeling that he can be fixed, if the Rebel Without A Cause doesn’t have a genuine shot at redemption, he’s just an arsehole at the end of the day. There’s tension that builds in the gap between who the bad boy is, and who he could be. There’s potential, and potential is sexy. It needs to seem like he has a sensitive side underneath it all, an upset inner child that needs looking after. He needs to look like the kind of guy who might hug a horse.
Films that placed Farrell as just a smarmy dickhead (Minority Report), or an unhinged baddy (Daredevil) weren’t making the best use of his presence. Farrell has eyes built for welling up, big and brown, wobbling under elastic, bushy eyebrows. They’re handsome, exaggerated features that accentuate emotion, broad windows to access his feelings and find a bigger house on the inside – they work best with contrast and conflict.
Even a cheap and cheerful thriller like Phone Booth could use him right. Farrell plays a sleazy New York publicist, breezily cheating on his girlfriend, schmoozing through life until pinned inside a phone booth by Kiefer Sutherland’s sniper. Here the smarm works in Farrell’s favour. With the camera locking him in a tight space for the majority of the film, we focus on his darting eyes and quivering voice. He’s a privileged guy shook by being inconvenienced at all, but breaking through that barrier allows us more easily into the terror he’s feeling, just as cowardly as most of us would be in this ridiculous situation. He comes off as genuinely, and understandably, upset to be caught in a life-or-death situation. The teary confession of what a scumbag his character is makes for something atypical and interesting in what is otherwise schlock. Joel Schumacher’s 2002 popcorn flick put Farrell through the ringer, and the actor’s credible performance helped to stretch a fun but thin premise.
That lost boy side of Farrell’s performances maybe comes through best in Martin McDonagh’s first feature, In Bruges. His rookie hitman Ray sulks at the Belgian city, needles partner Ken out of boredom, is rude, impatient and obnoxious. He’s acting out to push away an intense pain. Having accidentally killed a little boy during a job, Ray is suicidal. He’s utterly unable to handle the reality of what he’s done, and when he tries to shoot himself – but discovers Ken about to assassinate him at the exact same time – he breaks down completely. The external validation that he’s done something unforgivable, paired with the internal survival instinct that kicks in when it’s someone else coming to shoot, fries Ray. He’s so pent up with frustration that he can barely control his movements, impotently smacking his own legs in anger that they’re still, on top of everything else, in fucking Bruges. Farrell plays the crook as barely beyond a boy himself emotionally, simple but completely sincere.
In Bruges remains McDonagh’s best film, the one where the mix of the director’s nihilism and his actors’ sincere sadness adds up to a worthy punchline. Mortally wounded Ray, who doesn’t want to live, finds that he really hopes that he doesn’t die the exact moment he arrives on death’s door – his miserable time in Bruges has made the prospect of purgatory unbearable. It’s a twisted spin on Frank Capra; Ray is so completely consumed by meaningless that he laps his despair and comes back round to wanting to live again. The whole film relies on how Farrell sells the performance; his adolescent acting up takes on a whole new light when you discover what he’s done, and his final revelation is that much more poignant because we’ve seen Ray suffer, both truly and in his own bad tourist estimation, so much. When Farrell’s voice rises ever so slightly, praying he doesn’t end up trapped in Bruges, we know how much he means it, and how deeply the city, or rather purgatory, or rather the prospect of not being forgiven, wounds him.
Banshees of Inisherin doesn’t have the same depth of emotional sincerity. As in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, McDonagh has made his characters and plotting flatter over time, the more half-heartedly to dance around with political and philosophical ideas. Farrell is as committed as ever though, playing his noble moron farmer with even more grace than is asked of him. Pádraic Súilleabháin is a similarly ironic gag to the In Bruges kicker above – the more aware of his lack of interiority that Pádraic is made, the more mournfully reflective and introspective he becomes. Farrell plays it pleadingly needy, eyes cast down, leading questions, laughing too hard, lashing out too wildly, all eager for his rejection by his best friend Colm to instantly disappear.
Along with Kerry Condon as his sister Siobhan, he taps into something deeper and more tragic than the plodding posturing with the main plot with Brendan Gleeson. The siblings have a close bond, but Pádraic needs it to remain in stasis forever more, he has no interest in his life changing and is emotionally unprepared for anything to the contrary. Siobhan feels devoted to him, but stifled, and all too aware that she can only be happy herself by leaving. We see in his face, constantly trying to read reactions, how Pádraic knows this, really. He just can’t accept it. Pádraic and Siobhan genuinely love each other but can only escape loneliness at the others expense – it’s a more nuanced, more interesting and more emotionally engaging side to the story than the main plot, and Farrell’s chemistry with Condon is genuine, fresher and more alive than the old slipper dynamic with Gleeson. The way that Farrell processes his rejection by Gleeson is moving, but only to a point – McDonagh writes his characters so coldly (Colm’s notions, Pádraic’s emptiness) that it’s hard to feel anything of value is actually lost in the dissolution of their friendship.
Ironically, Farrell has an even better performance in 2022, playing someone who doesn’t believe that he’s lost something meaningful at first. Set in the near future where people are even more reliant on technology, After Yang is beautifully introspective about what it means to be human. Farrell plays Jake, a man trying to restore Yang, the robotic ‘older brother’ of his daughter. Young Mika is despondent without her brother, a used model Jake and wife Kyra bought to help Mika intergrate after her adoption. Jake’s efforts to fix his broken property lead him to learn about parts of Yang’s life he knew nothing about, exploring his memories, seeing conversations in new light and learning what Yang meant to others around him.
Director Kogonada has such a warm and understated way of showing how we relate to each other. A conversation between Jake and Yang about memory and motivation could so easily be pretentious, especially in the sci-fi setting, but its treated genuinely. Jake, trying to remember the documentary All In This Tea and describe it to Yang, dips into a Werner Herzog impression. It’s a silly, sincere moment that goes in a flash but makes his character so much more human. It’s a film of quiet touches; the way that Jake exhales to control his emotions after watching a video log of Yang’s memories, the subtle shift to shame in his body language when his neighbour’s kids confront his prejudice. Jake has a ‘thing’ about clones, the setting’s other innovation. He liked Yang well enough but didn’t connect with him either, or really see him as a person with his own agency. When the neighbour’s daughter reveals that Jake’s ‘son’ had an entire relationship with a clone that he knew nothing about, it’s a triple hit, in direct opposition to the tragically worthless life Banshees puts on Pádraic – everything has a life unto itself, and it’s meaningful.
Farrell takes us on a complex emotional journey, a kind of murder mystery in reverse where he realises that the body he’s been carrying around once had its own life. He’s shook, in a good way, and there’s a nice stillness to how he carries himself. The more open he is to grieving Yang, the more he moves into the background, for Mika, Yang’s girlfriend and others to step in. The film is a great example of how Farrell uses his physicality in a different way – saying something big by making himself smaller.
Farrell’s collaborations with Yorgos Lanthimos make hay from that physicality, their repressed worlds given form in Farrell’s pent up movements. In The Lobster, everything the story has to say about the tragicomedy of loneliness comes out in how Farrell holds himself in the final scene. Slumped, hunched, hesitant, the world’s strange rules about relationships have defeated him. But he doesn’t have to be a hopeless case to get our sympathy. Even the cad of Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled remake can bring us to that place. A manipulative coward who finds more than he bargained for in Ms. Farnsworth’s Virginian girls school, Farrell, physically compromised, all flop sweat flailing, embodies ‘Congratulations, you played yourself’ circa 1864, making his own bed and burying himself firmly in it. He’s a creep, but at the core of his actions are desperation, and desperation, well performed, will always be relatable.
There’s an extra weight behind the performances of big name actors, when we build up a sense in our heads of what they’ve really been through. How much they draw from those experiences in their acting varies, but it can still be front of mind for the viewer. In Farrell’s individual case, you could say he put in work on his end until the red tops lost interest in his scandals. He’s been to rehab, and has committed to sobriety, checking back in early when he’s found himself in a bad place.
It would be remiss not to point out that men in Hollywood are afforded more opportunities for redemption than women. But the sense of regret, and the sincerity for a better future, can be read in the Irish actor’s work, something not irretrievably tragic, but understandably emphatic. Again, contrast is key. We see, often, how much charisma Farrell has, a funny, affable, commanding presence. To see him wilt, buckle under the weight of sorrow, makes for one of the most sympathetic performers on screen at the moment. In small indie films and in Oscar contenders, audiences look at the sadness in Farrell and they see something essential.