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)
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)
“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)
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)
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.
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
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.
Big Top Pee-wee (1988)
Licence to Kill (1989)
The Indian Runner (1991)
Swimming with Sharks (1994)
The Fan (1996)
Excess Baggage (1997)
The Way of the Gun (2000)
The Pledge (2001)
The Hunted (2003)
Sin City (2005)
The Wolfman (2010)
Jimmy P. (2013)
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Escobar: Paradise Lost (2014)
Inherent Vice (2014)