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Colin Farrell and the Mid-Career Balancing Act

by Fionna Farrell

Staff Writer

art by Eva Sturm-Gross

[originally published March 25, 2022]


We have the same last name, and we were born only ten days (and twenty-five years) apart, so I’d say I was relatively destined to write this article. From a young age, I was not unaware of this; my first encounter with the Irish actor was at the ripe age of eleven. I’d like to say the experience was a positive one, but, in reality, it was watching a movie so bad that it would elicit groans from the class—if, that is, teachers were audacious enough to play films with a 16% Rotten Tomato score. That was Alexander.

Farrell deserves some slack, though; not many can say they’ve made a film with Oliver Stone by age twenty-eight. Unfortunately, during those days, it wasn’t necessarily Farrell’s acting chops that preceded him. And that’s beyond the fact that, er, he might not have been the best Alexander the Great. Off set as much as on, Farrell had something of a “bad-boy” reputation in the early aughts, complete with non-stop partying antics that were a front for more profound struggles. He has called his journey a “garden variety” tale of addiction.

Jump to 2022, though, and Farrell has been sober for sixteen years. He has saturated Hollywood with an air of both freshness and finesse. I watch one of his films, and then I watch another, and I balk at the fact that on any planet that could be considered the same person. Sure, this, in part, might be due to a particular role he played in 2022’s emo The Batman— apparently, becoming the Penguin entailed a three-hour makeup procedure each day. But there’s something beyond the mere physicality of Farrell’s characters that has designated him as truly versatile—a newfound Renaissance man in the flesh.

After I first watched Alexander in horror, the next encounter I had with Farrell was through 2015’s The Lobster. That film evokes a different sort of horror—one that is intentional, and not rooted in the deep shame of misplaced casting. Farrell, believe it or not, actually felt perfectly cast for the role of soon-to-be-turned-into-an-animal single man. I don’t know how anyone can feel perfectly cast in this very dark, very European surreal comedy but he somehow does. As he does, as well, in 2017’s followup The Killing of a Sacred Deer.

That film’s plot line is so grotesque, so bleak, hopeless, and meaning-denying by any angle you look at it, that I shouldn’t really go into detail here. But perhaps it’s too late, and I’ve already evoked your curiosity. Let’s just say that Farrell, this time a renowned yet haunted heart surgeon, is forced to make a devastating choice that will change his life forever. This is at the behest of eerie child-man Barry Keoghan, whom you might recognize from his Joker cameo in the aforementioned emo Batman.

It is uncertain what, exactly, prompted Farrell’s sudden proclivity towards A24-adjacent art-horror. But that’s not to say that his acerbic roots can’t be traced elsewhere. In 2007, in perhaps his most critically acclaimed role, Farrell played a hitman with a dark secret, while happening to be trapped in Bruges (Europe’s Disneyland) with his partner. In 2012’s less dark, though almost insufferably meta Seven Psychopaths, he plays a tortured screenwriter whose dreams are put on hold when he accidentally kidnaps a gangster’s dog. The list goes on with varying degrees of subtlety over the years. But it is certainly an understatement to say that Farrell has done it all—he’s done that, and more. He has worked with Michael Mann as well as Sofia Coppola, Yorgos Lanthimos, Stephen Spielberg, John Lee Hancock and Clark Johnson (you probably don’t know who those last two people are—I don’t either). Farrell has made future classics and terrible, cringeworthy busts. He has been in the darkest part of the light and the brightest part of the shadows. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but it sounds good, and it seems to capture Colin Farrell—especially this year.

In 2022, Farrell’s imperfect balancing act has refined itself beyond measure. As opposed to mixing the good, with the bad, with the terrible, Farrell now only appears to mix the good with the good, without losing sight of any of the versatility for which I have lauded him. This has allowed both his artistic conscience and his bank account to thrive.

Perhaps, when I talk of the latter, it is indeed The Batman of which I speak, which has grossed an obscene $500 million worldwide. In it, Farrell gets nothing short of gimmicky with his portrayal of Mr. Oswald Copplepot—which, in this case, inarguably works for the better. In a 3-hour film that feels more like Se7en than anything Marvel (or DC), it is impossible to not want to cleanse the bleakness of The Batman out of one’s system at a certain point. Like the final season of GOT, the entire film is constantly bathed in darkness, to the point where it is physically hard to see. R-Pat’s pale face serves as no counterpoint, for, even when we see it naked, it is usually smudged with eyeliner.

So we need the Penguin—he is our light. We need the comically exaggerated, mid-level Gotham mobster. He looks and sounds absolutely unrecognizable, and the Batman director agrees: “I was like, who is this guy?” he tells Variety. Oddly enough, though, beyond his physical appearance, the Penguin is far from a one-note creature; within minutes he goes from angry, seedy, and volatile, to someone whom, within the general scope of the film, we come closest to empathizing with, whether it be from his mawkish tenderness or his fate in a batmobile chase. Farrell is able to walk these lines with grace and precision, even considering that these terms do not exist in his character’s dictionary.

Farrell’s second notable film this year, let’s just say, was not as much of a box office smash. It's an A24 film whose director goes by one name, so you get the picture I’m trying to paint. That is After Yang, a heartfelt, aesthetically minimalist (and bright) sci-fi drama in which Farrell plays a confounded father, considering the many options he has after Yang breaks. Yang is, in the film’s vernacular, a techno-sapien—in this case, an incredibly lifelike android, whom Farrell and his wife bought for their daughter in hopes of connecting her more with her Chinese heritage.

It is a quiet film, and an absolutely heartbreaking one. We have bounded past the mythical A24 sci-fi tropes, which so often can come across as artful yet soulless. As encouraging us to be luddites. Kogonada’s film does not, and the movie’s subtle, yet pounding heart is brought out devastatingly well by all members of its cast. Farrell deals with grief, and memory, and what it means to be a father—a good one—in a way that has never been done before. In the ethereal light, he finds not whimsy, but brooding and questioning. His performance is fine tuned and purposeful, in a film that feels that way too. In this effort Kogonada did not intend to be epic. Nor did Farrell. This works infinitely in either of their favors.

If there’s any way by which I can connect these two equally seismic films, it is to say that they each make me appreciate the other even more, for their darkness and light. I would not be able to see Jake’s (from After Yang) subtlety, in all of its small, insuppressible moments, if I were not able to see—and look away from—the Penguin’s caricatured grandeur. I never would have guessed that Colin would be the man to do them both, but given his past, I never would have seen their difference as something to stop him. His chances seem more calculated now, but of the same nature; blockbuster, or arthouse, it doesn’t matter, as long as there are no Alexanders in the picture. A sobered man, whose career isn’t at risk of nosediving any time soon, he has matured past that, and into new depths. This doesn’t mean that he can’t pursue the epic—just not (usually) the epically bad. You don’t have to be the lead every time. You just do have to be remembered.

I, surely, will remember After Yang as much as I do The Batman. They were released on the same day. If only I could’ve watched them consecutively—I think a sort of equilibrium would have been established in my soul.

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