Thursday, June 11, 2015

In Character: Benicio Del Toro

One of my favorite things about writing these In Character posts is that I occasionally discover a new reason why I love an actor I already admired. I’ve loved Benicio Del Toro’s work since he strutted away from the police in his opening scene in The Usual Suspects, but in writing this post, I realized what I like most about him are his silences. While widely regarded for the inspired voices he often gives his characters, Del Toro’s real skill is his stare. Here’s an actor I’ve always appreciated, but like even more now, just from stacking all of his best work together.

Five Essential Roles
The Usual Suspects (1995)
Fred Fenster
Imagine this happening today: a young, good looking actor with plenty of promise lands the biggest role of his career. A few days before shooting, he comes up with an insane idea: he’s going to speak in a voice that will make him virtually indecipherable. Wouldn’t happen today. But, of course, there’s more to Del Toro’s Fenster than just his voice. It’s his strut, the words he chooses, his overall sway. Del Toro said he played Fenster as a half German, half Chinese guy who grew up in Harlem, and developed his manner of speech from the streets. Such a hilariously audacious choice for a breakthrough role.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
Dr. Gonzo
“As your attorney I advise you to rent a very fast car with no top. And you’ll need the cocaine. Tape recorder for special music. Acapulco shirts. Get the hell out of L.A. for at least 48 hours.”

I have my issues with Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but not a single one of them stems from Del Toro’s manic performance as Dr. Gonzo. Again, pay attention to the choices Del Toro made as an actor here. Yes, there’s the gaining of 40 pounds (achieved by, Del Toro said, eating multiple doughnuts a day), but there’s also the schizophrenic cadence of his voice, drunken mannerisms, and on and on. A great, unhinged performance of comedic skill and bottomless rage. Too weird to live, too rare to die. Indeed.

21 Grams (2003)
Jack Jordan
Here’s a performance of such raw and unfiltered emotion, that it’s often uncomfortable to watch. Del Toro makes you feel Jack Jordan’s pain. Pain from a lifetime of contradiction and mistakes, regret and self-loathing. Ultimately, it’s the silences of Del Toro’s work in 21 Grams that I’m most taken with. The way he trembles with fear when admitting his crime to his wife, or studies his captor during his assumed final moments of life, or, most notably, the way he and Naomi Watts share a devastating look of acceptance and, possibly, forgiveness. Forgiveness, a difficult idea to imagine for Jack Jordan. But it’s down there, somewhere.

Things We Lost in the Fire (2007)
Jerry Sunborne
Although Things We Lost in the Fire was shopped as Halle Berry’s return to dramatic acting (and she’s quite good in it), it’s really Del Toro’s show. His arc as a struggling heroin addict presents some of the most visceral acting Del Toro has ever done. The “detox scene” is a staple of the “addict movie.” We’ve all seen it many times, but Del Toro makes it feel startling alive here. You really feel this guy’s anguish. And his final scene in the film is one of such beautiful understanding that it never fails to bring tears to my eyes.

Che (2008)
Che Guevara
Benicio Del Toro’s performance as Che Guevara is one of the finest portrayals of a real person I’ve ever seen. There isn’t a shred of Del Toro to be found in his Guevara. It’s all encompassing work, a riveting performance of complete immersion. Steven Soderbergh got a lot of flak for allowing Che to breathe. He split the material into two very different sections, stretched out over a total of four and half hours. The result, while patience-testing, allows Del Toro to fully inhabit the man, as opposed to simply showing us his life highlights. In Che, we watch the man think. We watch him plan and wait and change. It’s easy to find fault with such challenging material, but no matter your opinion on the film, there is no denying the power of Del Toro’s work in it. It’s criminal that he didn’t receive serious awards attention for this performance.

The Best of the Best
Traffic (2000)
Javier Rodríguez
In choosing Del Toro’s best work, I battled between his commanding turn in Che, and his quietly shattering work in Traffic. Ultimately, the choice was made for me after I rewatched the final scene of Traffic. A scene of such silent power that it brought tears to my eyes, as it has dozens of times before.

Traffic is one of my all-time favorite films, and a large part of that is due to Del Toro’s work in it. The conflict within Javier Rodríguez consumes him. He’s a good man, a loyal cop accidentally swept into a complex web of corruption and deceit. Again, it’s the silence of this performance that kills me. Whether he’s playfully flirting with a criminal in a gay bar, or pounding his steering wheel in frustration, Del Toro proved here that he’s capable of saying so much with just a look. Which brings us back to that final, perfect scene: sitting and watching a game he made possible, with total unselfish admiration. Enjoy the game, under your warm lights.

Other Notable Roles
in Licence to Kill
Big Top Pee-wee (1988)
Licence to Kill (1989)
The Indian Runner (1991)
Fearless (1993)
Swimming with Sharks (1994)
The Fan (1996)
Basquiat (1996)
Excess Baggage (1997)
Snatch. (2000)
The Way of the Gun (2000)
The Pledge (2001)
The Hunted (2003)
Sin City (2005)
The Wolfman (2010)
Somewhere (2010)
Savages (2012)
Jimmy P. (2013)
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Escobar: Paradise Lost (2014)
Inherent Vice (2014)
Sicario (2015)

49 comments:

  1. He's brilliant and weird and I love when a director knows that about him and lets him go. I think it's interesting, considering your top picks, how varied they really are.

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    1. Totally agree, it's best to trust him and just let him go. You can always tell when a director has too many constraints on Del Toro. Gotta let the free bird fly.

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  2. My favorite performance from him is in 21 Grams. I have not seen Che or Things We Lost in the Fire. I liked his role as the dirty cop/corpse in Sin City.

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    1. So good in 21 Grams. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on Che. A long one to get through, but worth it to me.

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  3. Absolutely one of my all time favorite actors. No doubt about it. Every time he pops up on screen i instantly pay attention no mater how boring or bad the movie might otherwise be. Picking just one favorite performance from him is impossible. Of course Traffic is one of the best. I haven't watched that movie in years, but his character and that last scene will forever be burnt into my memory. I also really love him in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. That is one of my personal favorite movies largely thanks to his performance. That bathtub scene is as scary as it is hilarious because of him.

    He is also brilliant of course in The Usual Suspects. I'm always disappointed to see him picked off so early in the movie every time i see it. The Way of the Gun is a very underrated movie with him as well. Sin City, 21 Grams, Snatch, Inherent Vice. He really makes any movie he appears in just a little bit better. I even like movies like The Hunted and The Wolfman because of him. I still haven't gotten around to watching the Che movies yet though, but thanks to this reminding me of it i think i will check it out soon. It's another couple of movies, or i guess just one, that i own on blu-ray but haven't seen yet.

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    1. He's one of the best, isn't he? And dude, I LOVE The Hunted and The Way of the Gun. Both very underrated genre flicks. Love them. But man, you have to see Che ASAP. Traffic technically is my favorite Del Toro performance, but his work in Che is astounding. He gets so lost in that character. Really glad to hear you're such a fan of his work!

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  4. His silence is moving, I love him. He has all the qualities of a great actor. I need to watch Traffic, Things We Lost in the Fire and Che. The Usual Suspects fucked with me so many years but I always was intrigued who was the guy with the red shirt, one of the only good parts of that overrated mess of a movie. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the masterpiece that some day will make it for me but now nothing. Though, he is absolutely perfect in that film. 21 Grams is a masterpiece in every way and del Toro is one of the many masterful parts of the movie. I expected that you'd talk about Snatch. or The Hunted or Sin City or Savages or, to some degree, Somewhere. I can't wait for Sicario.

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    1. I do love him in The Hunted, but it doesn't top those performances I picked, in my opinion. Love his cameo in Somewhere as well. Dude, you have to see Traffic and Che immediately. So good.

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  5. Really great post, Alex! In short, what I learned from reading this is that del Toro slays in every role he's in :)

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    1. Thanks Courtney! He's a slayer, no doubt. Love this guy.

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  6. For me, his crowning achievement is in Che. I have yet to see him do a bad performance. Even in an awful film like Savages. He's just awesome.

    I'm not sure if I told anyone this but this goes way back in the 80s. My parents were at a party held by one of their friends (who also does their taxes) as one of the people that was at the party was Benicio. This was before he was even famous. I don't remember what year it was and I'm not sure if I was at that party. It's just strange that I know someone who knows Benicio.

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    1. Ha, that's awesome. Baby-faced Benicio at a party. Love him in Che, love him in everything. You're right, even in crap like Savages, he kills it.

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  7. Truly a magnificent performer and screen presence. Among the best of his generation imo. Personally, I think I would have included his performance in Savages on here (the dude just chews the scenery in that one and is the best thing in that film). There's a guy in my class who love him who still hasn't seen Che (still working on getting him to see it lol). But man, such a powerful performer. He's also the only reason to watch the otherwise boring as fuck Escobar: Paradise Lost.

    One of my favorite stories about him is that on the set of FaLiLV, Johnny Depp has a particular style (which I assume he was using in most of the films he was in at that point) where he was very specific with his actions a movements. Then when Del Toro showed up on set, he was all angular and crazy and I think more improvisational with his role and it really started to piss Depp off because it threw him off.

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    1. I just listened to the Depp/Del Toro commentary on the Fear and Loathing Criterion, and it's great. They recorded separately, but Depp definitely touches on what you're talking about. He said Del Toro was unhinged, but always in control at the same time. They also both talk about how complimentary it was that everyone thought they were on drugs while they filmed. Del Toro is like, "There's no way you can use drugs and film scenes like these. These scenes take whole days to film, you can't stay that fucked up for that long. You'll die."

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  8. Nice picks. Del Toro is very underrated, and I wouldn't change a thing in your list. He's SO good in all of these, but Traffic would be my #1.

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    1. Thanks bud. Glad you agree with the picks. Traffic, man, it just kills me.

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  9. All great picks and I have to agree, Javier is his best role. "You like baseball?"

    I am so excited to see what he does in Sicario.

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    1. I can't wait for Sicario. Really excited for that one. So glad you appreciate his work in Traffic.

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  10. Benicio Del Toro, what a great actor. Before watching Traffic for the first time, I found it hard to believe that almost everyone singled out Del Toro as the MVP considering it had such a great cast. After I watched it, I understood. That final scene gives me goosebumps.

    Shoutout to his cameo in Somewhere. That's a great scene.

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    1. Traffic has one of my favorite casts ever, but yeah, there's no denying that Del Toro is the highlight. He's so good. And I LOVE his cameo in Somewhere. "I met Bono in 59."

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  11. He's one of the best, for sure! I love that you note his Things We Lost in the Fire performance. I feel like so little people saw that, and he's tremendous. I think his best work is 21 Grams, but honestly, he's so great in most everything (I actually can't stand his Usual Suspects performance, but that's just me) that picking a best performance is like throwing a dart at a stack of awesome.

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    1. Ha, love your final sentence. So true. Really happy you appreciate his TWLitF performance too. Decent film, but he's really good in it. And 21 Grams... forgetaboutit. Perfection.

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  12. Wow ... I LOVE Traffic and 21 Grams. I didn't love The Usual Suspects as much as everyone else seems to. I need to see Fear and Loathing, Che, and Things We Lost in the Fire.

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    1. He's amazing in Che, even though the movie is a bit challenging. Fear and Loathing is such a wild ride, and he totally goes for it. Love to know what you think of those movies.

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    2. When you say "challenging" do you mean "I'll find it thought provoking" or "it will give me f*cking nightmares for weeks?" :-D

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    3. Challenging as in it is purposefully very slow placed (particularly the second half). Very well done, but you'll feel its 4 and a half hour running time. Not nightmarish at all though, it's violence is very tame.

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  13. This due is AMAZING. I love him in everything I've seen him in. Got a few I still need to see, sadly. Your assessment of what he does in Things We Lost in the Fire. Gotta give props to his work in Sin City, too. His unique growl/drawl made him creepy as hell in that one. I'd go with Che as his top performance. It's just so immersive and rounded he rises above the movie's faults, particularly the second half.

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    1. Nice! I love him in Sin City. So funny. And his Che performance is epic. Can't disagree with anyone who thinks that is his best work.

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  14. I have never seen traffic, but i have seen 21 Grams and that will forever be my favorite performance of his. It is just so raw and so real, so heartbreaking.

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    1. Such fearless work in 21 Grams. Highly recommend Traffic though.

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  15. And Alex dude, the appreciation level is very high if you watch having had expirence with drugs some of the scenes where i laughed because i could relate so much and some scenes made my stomach turn because I could relate so much (The bathroom scene).

    I'm not in any way encouraging drugs! I'm just saying that the experience is different wherever you have used drugs or not.

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  16. Man I've missed your In Character posts so much. And when it comes to an actor to Benicio Del Toro's fierce talent, I really love it. There are so few movie actors at them who I'd put in his league. His level of dedication is something that I admire so damn much. It's true that he has that rare ability to act without speaking a single word. His stare is indeed the very essence of his acting. That's something I've noticed the most in his harrowing portrayal of Jack Jordan in 21 Grams. His heartbreaking performance as a seriously damaged man is quite simply disturbing to watch. I could say uncomfortable but that doesn't quite sum up the level of emotional truth he conveys there, especially when Naomi Watts' character (SPOILER ALERT) tries to kill him with the wooden lamp. I mean this film is one of the most well-acted films ever anyway but his work is really a force of nature. Really powerful stuff. It tops everything he's done for me. And that truly says a lot because I've pretty much seen his entire filmography (run out of superlatives when it comes to his work in Traffic or Che). Personally, I'd include his turn as Jackie Boy is Sin City as one his five best mainly because it's such a wild and unexpected departure of the heavily dramatic roles we're often used to see him and it's a really mesmerizing, ferocious, scary-funny performance. Love the "huge mistake" scene with Owen at the bathroom. Cracks me up every time.

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    1. I feel like you could make a strong case for Traffic, 21 Grams and Che as his best work. But all that matters is that he is truly astounding in all of them. And I LOVE him in Sin City. He was sorely missed in the sequel. Man, just writing this comment makes me want to rewatch 21 Grams ASAP.

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    2. I know right? I haven't seen 21 Grams in ages. Planning on rewatching it soon.

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    3. Rewatched it last night. So good. So, so good.

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    4. I know man, I did the same thing today and man this film is just insanely powerful. The impact it could have on a person's life is so incredibly strong.

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    5. And what a seemingly random but perfect final shot to that movie. It nails me every time.

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    6. Exactly. It's just phenomenal. I catched myself thinking about that particular shot for quite some time after watching the film for the first time.

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  17. * sorry, meant "There are so few movie actors out there who I'd put in his league", don't know what happened there, haha

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  18. So happy you got to Benicio Del Toro, what a terrific actor. I love watching him so much. Totally agree with the top choice. Traffic is just a astonishing piece of work. Bought it a couple days ago on Criterion for $20, it was such a steal (got Cries and Whispers and Hunger at the same time). Love that The Hunted was on the honorable mentions, just really like that movie, so much fun to watch. Traffic though is by far the best, as you have stated in previous posts and this post, that final scene, so good.

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    1. Hell yeah man. That final scene in Traffic gets me every time. Dude, that is an EPIC Criterion haul you had. Three masterpieces right there. And I love The Hunted. Always really enjoyed that film. That final fight scene is insane!

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  19. Excellent article! del Toro is such a terrific actor and his work in Fear and Loathing is truly a mad genius. I also loved his comedic turn in Snatch. He even manages to be charismatic in trash like Savages. I really think Sicario may bring his best work next to Traffic yet, from what I read so far he steals the show

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    1. I'm SO excited for Sicario - easily one of my most anticipated films of this year. And you're right, no matter what the film is, Del Toro always delivers.

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  20. Traffic and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas are the two performances of his that stand out for me. So different in those two roles. A sign of a versatile actor.

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    1. And they're only two years apart! Hard to believe it's the same guy.

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  21. What? Excess Baggage didn't get a menion? Heheheh. Del Toro can be brilliantly subtle in a menacing way and in tragic way. Sicario is an example for both. Things We Lost in the Fire was beautifully done, I thought it was more about Del Toro's character than Berry's. Great post!

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    1. Thanks! Hahha Excess Baggage barely missed the cut. I thought Things We Lost in the Fire would've been a much better film if it focused more on Del Toro's character.

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