I honestly didn’t realize this until drafting this post, but what makes Jason Isaacs so impactful is his ability to make seemingly throwaway roles so memorable. The evil war villain, the perfect best friend, the stern military commander, the disgruntled husband, the inner city psycho – familiar roles, all played to excellence through distinctiveness. Isaacs has an uncanny ability to make even the most regular of characters unforgettable.
Five Essential Roles
The Patriot (2000)
Col. William Tavington
The movie war villain is as common as the movie war hero. The old maxim, unwritten or otherwise, denotes that if we’re given someone to root for, we must be given someone to rally against. Basically, on paper, Col. William Tavington is a standard gig – the steely psychopath with an insatiable blood lust and zero ability to reason. Funny then that upon seeing The Patriot, Jason Isaacs is likely the one (if only) thing about the film you cannot forget. Isaacs takes a typical role and elevates it with restraint, cold, dead eyes, and utter believability. Whether he’s murdering Mel Gibson son(s), verbally proclaiming his death wish, or, really, just staring off camera intently, there’s nothing about Tavington that doesn’t hit just right.
Sweet November (2001)
Very similar to his transformative work in an otherwise forgetful war film, Isaacs manages to heighten a seemingly throwaway romantic dramedy by, you know, being really damn good in it. A hotshit ad exec who moonlights as a drag queen, Isaacs’ calming presence in this clichéd romance film is something that all clichéd romance films could use. He’s warm, but not overbearing, funny, but never fighting for the laugh. Chaz is an obvious voice of reason that is played as anything but. Put another way: in no other context can I recommend this film. Isaacs makes it.
Black Hawk Down (2001)
Cpt. Mike Steele
Cpt. Mike Steele is your standard hardass Ranger. He bosses his men around through intimidation, noncompliance, and a complete lack of humor. This doesn’t make him a flawed character, but definitely puts him at risk of being a usual one. Thankfully, like the best men in Black Hawk Down, Isaacs manages to stick out amongst the chaos. With his tanned, bald head, piercing gaze and frequent battle hesitation, Steele is a character of tremendous subtle vulnerability. Now, admittedly, we don’t get to know much about him until his final scene, when he stands over a dying soldier named Ruiz and promises to not go back into the fight without him. For the first and only time, we’re privy to Steele’s compassion, and it is heartbreaking to watch. You have to pay attention to the film’s closing tribute to realize that the real Ruiz didn’t make it, which somehow makes Isaacs work here that much more endearing.
Friends with Money (2006)
One of the reasons I’m so taken with Nicole Holofcener’s films is because her characters talk how real people talk. Take, for instance, the story arc of frustrated married couple Christine (Catherine Keener) and David (Isaacs) in Friends with Money. There isn’t a scene between the two in which insults aren’t flung, tempers aren’t flared, and relationships aren’t ruined. Difference is, Christine and David fight how the average married couple fights. Not by screaming and shouting while breaking dishes or hitting each other, but rather through verbal intimidation and an unwillingness to admit wrong. In one of the film’s most telling moments, David tells his wife:
“You’re eating a lot of shit lately.”
“So I can see it on your ass.”
And the way in which Isaacs delivers that insult – not with venom, but with charm – is just one example of how Isaacs can layer a character so effectively. You won’t hate him, but you certainly won’t like him. Hell, David feels so real, you might actually know him.
Before we’re properly introduced to lifelong Rhode Island thug, Michael Caffee, we hear first of his legacy. We hear how, before leaving his crime-laden life in Providence, he ran the streets, kicked ass, took names, and, most notably, stabbed a female pedophile 54 times and left her dead in the street. So, basically, Michael Caffee is not to be fucked with. And when he returns home after seven years, it’s obvious as to why.
Showtime’s Brotherhood ran for three seasons, drew frequent comparisons to The Sopranos and The Wire, and had the great fortune of Isaacs as one of its anchors. Instead of roll calling all of his violent and often amusing antics, time is better spent by simply stating that I believe Isaacs’ performance as Michael Caffee to be one of the finest ever delivered for premium cable television. He’s a compassionate, loyal, psychotic killer, frequently in control, and capable of displaying humility. Brotherhood is worth watching for many reasons, and Isaacs, it must be said, is chief among them.
The Best of the Best
Nine Lives (2005)
Going back and rewatching my favorite episodes of Brotherhood for this post had me rethinking which role I should highlight as Isaacs’ best. But then I sat down and marveled at his brief work in Rodrigo García’s criminally ignored anthology film, Nine Lives. The film is split into nine segments, each featuring a different woman in duress. The segment featuring Isaacs begins with Robin Wright’s Diana casually shopping for groceries. And then she sees him. She sees the love of her life, the one who got away, the one who made youth worthwhile.
Once Isaacs’ Damian locks eyes, he approaches Diana and they dive into a playful, nostalgic conversation that will leave you utterly devastated. Dialogue wise, we don’t get to know much about the characters in Nine Lives (especially the supporting ones); it’s all in the their faces. It’s the way Isaacs recalls lost love through a simple expression of desperation. The way he forcefully approaches Diana (after she’s told him to stay away), leaving us equally horrified and in awe by what he might do next. And that’s just the thing: you never know what Isaacs is thinking. He turns a regular fella shopping for food into as fine a proclamation of love as I can recall. You’ll want nothing more than to follow him.
(Note: Nine Lives also contains what I consider William Fichtner’s finest performance.)
Other Notable Roles
|In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1|
Event Horizon (1997)
Divorcing Jack (1998)
The End of the Affair (1999)
Harry Potter films (2002-2011)
Peter Pan (2003)
The West Wing (2004)
The Chumscrubber (2005)
The State Within (2006)
Green Zone (2010)