Wednesday, April 10, 2013

In Character: Jason Isaacs


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.

(Note: The Harry Potter films are not for me. Lucius Malfoy wasn’t forgotten, he was simply not revisited.)

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)
Chaz/Cherry Watley
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)
David
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 what?”
“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.

Brotherhood (2006-2008)
Michael Caffee
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)
Damian
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
Dragonheart (1996)
Event Horizon (1997)
Armageddon (1998)
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)
Good (2008)
Entourage (2008)
Green Zone (2010)
Awake (2012)


41 comments:

  1. Isaacs I'm admittedly only familiar with from the Harry Potter movies. (Then again, I suppose that could be applied to a handful of British character actors.) Now I have some films to check out. Thanks.

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    1. My pleasure! Dude is mad intense... always on point.

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  2. I remember seeing The Patriot as a pre-teen and feeling such hatred for that character. And, he stands out for me in so many other movies. I was really disappointed when his NBC series Awake was canceled. Great post for an underrated actor!

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    1. Thanks so much! I actually haven't seen Awake, but I've heard really good things. Need to scope it out.

      I felt the exact same way about his Patriot character back in the day. Horrible man, that one.

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  3. Kermode and Mayo would be happy to see this lol. Reading through this list I realize how many films from Isaacs I need to see. Even though I wasn't a huge fan of the film I did think his small role in Green Zone was solid. Which would you recommend me starting with?

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    1. Oh are they fans of his?

      I did enjoy his work in Green Zone, even though I wasn't too fond of that film.

      With the exception of Brotherhood, all of the roles I highlighted above contain rather brief Isaacs apparences. I'd start with Nine Lives, then The Patriot, Black Hawk Down and Friends with Money. That's a solid balance of his range. And if you can fit it in, Brotherhood is amazing.

      Thanks for commenting!

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  4. My first experience in seeing Jason Isaacs was checking out The Patriot in the theaters. That is a pretty ridiculous and terrible movie, but he's so memorable in that part. I haven't watched it since but agree that his performance stands out. I agree that he's very good and nasty in Friends with Money, and I'll echo the other comment about Awake. That show was inconsistent, but he was always believable. Nice job!

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    1. Thanks Dan!

      My first exposure to Isaacs was via The Patriot as well. And I definitely thought, both then and now, that he was really the only good part about it.

      Awake sounds like something I need to see.

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  5. Another person here who is only familiar with his role in Harry Potter. Out of curiosity would you ever include a Harry Potter character in an In Character post because I know you've done a bunch already and none of their Potter characters were included.
    -Dan

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    1. I have nothing against the Harry Potter flicks, they just simply aren't for me. I've seen all of them once, and I truly think that the roles I've picked for the actors you mentioned are all superior to the actors' respective work in the Potter films. Just a matter of personal taste.

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    2. I guess so. I was also scratching my head at the exclusion of Doc Ock in the Alfred Molina post. I get that Boogie Nights might be the better movie but come on his part was so minor in that.

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    3. Doc Ock was close to making the cut, but, if anything, I hope this column proves that it really doesn't matter how minor the part is. As long as the actor is able to captivate, then length of screen time doesn't matter to me at all. In fact, I'd say that, aside from Diego Rivera, Rahad Jackson is the best character Molina has ever played. Damn hard to play that convincingly strung out.

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  6. I love Jason Isaacs. One of the things I love about listening to Mark Kermode is a hello to Jason Isaacs. His role in The Patriot is still my favorite performance from him. He's pretty much great in everything I've seen him including the blandness that was Sweet November which would've been a better film if the focus had been on him instead of Keanu and Charlize.

    As for the Lucius Malfoy character, the casting was perfect from the way he looked so dignified in the second film to the wreck that he becomes in the last 2 parts.

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    1. Okay, I need to find this Kermode thing, because that sounds priceless.

      His character in Sweet November could easily merit an entire film. I love his work in that crap movie.

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  7. Unfortunately, among these films, I've only seen Friends With Money, which I disliked, and The Patriot, which I REALLY disliked (I didn't even make it all the way through the movie). I did like his role in the Harry Potter movies, though. :-)

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    1. I'm honestly surprised that you didn't like Friends with Money... seems like the kind of "true" American film you might dig. But hey, we like what we like! (I don't like The Patriot either, but I love him in it. Weird.)

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    2. I see what you mean -- based on your description, it sounds like the kind of thing I'd probably like. :) It's been a while, so I've forgotten exactly why I disliked it so much. I think it might've been a case of lacking characters I could like or empathize with. Even with my love of cinematic misery, I think all the characters seemed too mean spirited to me. Or something. Anyhoo, as you said, we like what we like. Maybe I'll try some other movies by this filmmaker since you said she does natural dialogue very well.

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    3. Well you're definitely right there - most all of the characters in that film are mean spirited and down right cold. Truth, truth.

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  8. You must see 'Awake' his grief is tangible in the later episodes and you missed two of my favorites, Case Histories, and Skeletons. I'll watch anything with him in the cast now, he has proven himself to be consistently worthwhile no matter how small the part.

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    1. Hey zula, thanks so much for the great recommendations, and for stopping by and commenting.

      So glad to hear you're an Isaacs fan!

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  9. I've only seen him in the Harry Potter films, Peter Pan and Black Hawk Down. Unfortunately, I only remember snippets of the latter.

    Question- have you watched a Harry Potter film?

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    1. I've seen every Harry Potter film once. And, well, I was much more interested in revisiting his work in the awful Sweet November than I was in those films. Personal taste, ya dig?

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    2. Haha okay, it's not thaaat bad. Dated a girl once who played it on repeat. I think I've seen it upwards of 20 times.

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  10. My favorite Isaacs performance is definitely Col. Tavington. He's so great at playing a character you can despise. I haven't seen Nine Lives, but it's on watchlist. It sounds like a great performance.

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    1. He really is a master at playing such incredible sonsofbitches. Hope you have a chance to watch Nine Lives soon. He's in it for about 10 minutes, and ignites the screen.

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    2. I can't resist an actor who can play a despicable son of a bitch brilliantly. I'll add 9 Lives to my list.

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    3. You both might like my post later today ;)

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  11. Besides the Harry Potter series, I've only seen him in Peter Pan and Awake. I liked him in Awake, he was great. Definitely giving some of his films a watch.

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    1. So I really need to check out Awake, which is awesome! Too bad it was so short lived.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

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  12. Man, say what you will about the Harry Potter films (that they're generally crap, would be pretty apt) but they do feature a whole load of the best British & Irish actors (even a few Americans thrown in for good measure); Isaacs, Ralph Fiennes, Jim Boradbent, Robbie Coltrane, Brendan Gleeson, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Gary Oldman, Bill Nighy, Richard Griffiths...I mean, it's just insane, really. Reason enough to watch the mediocrities they tended to be (the 5th I remember as being pretty decent).

    Wish I could comment with more depth on the Jason Isaacs oeuvre, but I went off on this train of thought instead! haha

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    1. I expected the Potter fans to come out in droves here (which is why I issued that note), and that's all good. Massive fan base and all. I agree that the talent those films featured was impeccable to say the least. But I could never care less about what they were doing or saying. And so it is.

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    2. I actually like the HP movies, though I am more a fan of the books. Granted they aren't the greatest films of all time -- they don't even do justice to the series from which they're adapted. But they're fun family movies and -- as you both said -- they featured an insane amount of talent. Of course I'm speaking as a fantasy lover and a mom -- I can certainly see why perspectives vary. ;-)

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    3. Yeah, same thing with my indifference toward the LOtR films: I respect them, but that's about all.

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  13. Lucius! He plays a good villain/stern character. I really liked him in The Chumsrubber, that was such a good little movie.

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    1. He definitely plays a great, great villain. Dude really knows how to tap into angst. His role in The Chumsrubber was next in line here. I really like that film as well.

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    1. Ha, I love how much that has taken off.

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  15. I agree that Isaacs was the best thing about The Patriot. He was so hissably evil. To bad I can't say much else good about the movie.

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    1. Nor can I. Lame movie, great performance. Thanks for stopping by, Chip!

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