No matter what role Mark Ruffalo is playing, he embodies his characters so specifically, that he immediately convinces us that they’re are real. What a joy it has been to watch Ruffalo’s career morph from obscure independent wasteland to wildly revered character actor. One of the things I respect most about Ruffalo is that he has the capacity to be one of the biggest actors in the world. He’s continually offered major roles in massive movies, but instead of solely taking those, he chooses his roles based on the strength and complexity of the character. Six such characters are listed below.
We Don’t Live Here Anymore (2004)
Jack Linden is an unhappy man. He’s bored by his work, fed up with his drunk life, jealous of his friends – hell, the only time he seems happy is the few minutes every week he spends sleeping with his best friend’s wife. And even those moments are short lived. There’s a certain brand of emotional torture that Ruffalo can exemplify so well. It makes characters like Jack instantly compelling. I certainly wouldn’t want to be friends with Jack Linden, but I love watching Ruffalo navigate Jack’s infinite contradictions.
Ruffalo has the least flashy role of Zodiac’s three leading men. But playing opposite Jake Gyllenhaal’s obsessed, spastic Robert Graysmith and Robert Downey Jr.’s antagonistic, flamboyant Paul Avery allowed Ruffalo to demonstrate his great capacity for restraint. Don’t get me wrong, Dave Toschi gets angry. He gets frustrated by the years-long hunt for an elusive serial killer, he gets upset when his partner bows out, and he gets annoyed with Graysmith and Avery’s feverish antics. But he cares. Dave Toschi cares about keeping the bay area safe. He cares about catching the killer. He’s a cop, and a good one. I believe in Toschi’s conviction, which is thanks to the believability Ruffalo brings to the character.
Begin Again (2013)
Dan is one of the most playfully outrageous characters Ruffalo has played yet. His unkempt (yet somehow fashionable) appearance, smoking those ridiculous cigarettes, calling everyone “babe,” asking his underage daughter to pick up his tab, recording a song on a subway platform – it’s all so silly. And if a lesser actor played Dan, the performance would come off as just that. But Ruffalo embraces Dan’s eccentricities, all while welcoming his earnestness and genius. It’s a fun role, but a tricky one. Push the silliness too far, and you’re a clown; leave too much out, and you’re dull. Ruffalo finds the balance in a way that’s equally entertaining and endearing.
Everything about Ruffalo’s work in Foxcatcher feels real. It’s the way Ruffalo’s Dave keeps his hand on a shoulder for a few seconds too long, the way he convincingly carries himself on the mat; it’s his shaky speech pattern, his soothing reliability. One of my favorite scenes in Foxcatcher is when Dave’s brother, Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave’s wife, Nancy (Sienna Miller), get into a brief spat in a hotel room. Mark storms out, and Dave goes after him. In any other movie, Dave would lecture Mark – “You need to calm down, brother,” “Don’t speak to my wife that way,” etc. Instead, Dave catches up to Mark and immediately begins coaching him on Mark’s upcoming competition. That’s a man who knows his brother. He knows a lecture will solve nothing, so he goes right to work. It’s a short scene, but certainly one of the most real in the movie.
This was a tough call. My final pick for Ruffalo’s best roles came to an even split between his Oscar-nominated turns in The Kids Are All Right and Spotlight. But I suppose having a hard time deciding between two stellar performances is a good problem to have. I ultimately went with Mike Rezendes because I really believe (there’s that word again) everything Ruffalo does here. I believe in the physicality of Ruffalo’s portrayal (he speaks exactly like the real Rezendes), I believe his sincerity, his anger, and his dedication to the written word. Mark Ruffalo’s Mike Rezendes was a newspaperman’s newspaperman. The department store clothes, the scrambling around, the shit box apartment, the tireless dedication. I believed it all. And I’ll admit, when Patricia Arquette opened that Oscar envelope and said “Mark R…,” I really wished it had gone the other way.
The Best of the Best
You Can Count on Me (2000
Everyone reacts to trauma differently. Even if the traumatic event is shared. We first meet Sammy and Terry as children, moments after their parents are killed in a car accident. When we catch up with them decades later, Sammy (Laura Linney) is a responsible, working, single mother and Terry (Ruffalo) is a selfish burnout, aimlessly walking back into Sammy’s life to score some quick cash. But there’s more. As Kenneth Lonergan’s small, exquisite film, You Can Count On Me, develops, we learn more about Sammy and Terry as siblings and as individuals. Perhaps Sammy is far more bored by her small town life than she leads on. Perhaps within Terry, there is an abandoned heart praying to be noticed.
There’s something about You Can Count On Me – an earnest melancholy, an inherent truth – that makes it some sort of small masterpiece. The film made Linney and Ruffalo stars and their performances remain the best work of their respective careers. When I first saw the film, I was a kid, closer to the age of Sammy’s son, Rudy (Rory Culkin), than Sammy and Terry. Now the opposite is true, and because of this, I understand the plight of the siblings so much better. The first time we see Terry, he’s hitting his girlfriend up for cash, and telling her she should move out by the time he gets back. He looks like he hasn’t showered all day, if not all week. I won’t tell you the last time we see him, but to say he’s changed would be an understatement.
The Last Castle (2001)
In the Cut (2003)
My Life Without Me (2003)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
13 Going on 30 (2004)
Reservation Road (2007)
The Brothers Bloom (2008)
What Doesn’t Kill You (2008)
Shutter Island (2010)
The Kids Are All Right (2010)
The Avengers (2012)
Thanks for Sharing (2012)
Infinitely Polar Bear (2014)
The Normal Heart (2014)