Wednesday, December 7, 2011

In Character: David Morse

Commanding yet calm, agreeable yet unrelenting. These are a few traits I most often associate with David Morse, that big, brooding man whose imposing physical presence is used to intimidate just as often as it is to console.

Morse has the rare, uncanny ability to shift his characters’ motivations multiple times within a film, sometimes evolving within a single scene. With his soothing yet stern voice, he is also possessed with the unique skill of making an unbearable movie (possibly) worthwhile. Think Drive Angry, Proof of Life, Hearts of Atlantis, 16 Blocks and so on.

In March of 2007, as I began to leave a screening of Mike Bender’s pointless Reign Over Me, I looked back at the sparse crowd and saw David Morse sitting alone in the theater, watching the credits roll. I introduced myself and told him how much I enjoyed his work. He seemed surprised that someone my age not only recognized him, but knew him by name as well.  We sat for a few minutes, talking about the movie we had just watched (which he diplomatically said was “okay”), the movies he’s starred in (I name dropped many of the films below), and why he was in Richmond, Virginia (filming the HBO mini-series John Adams).

In short, while I’ve always considered Morse to be a great actor, it’s reassuring to know that he’s a damn nice guy too. Morse can currently be seen on HBO’s excellent series Treme.  It comes as no surprise that he alone could make the show worth watching.

Five Essentials Roles
The Indian Runner (1991)
Joe Roberts
As the lead in Sean Penn’s directorial debut, Morse plays a small town cop whose life is instantly thrown into disarray when his unstable brother (Viggo Mortensen) returns from Vietnam.

While Mortensen, Charles Bronson and Dennis Hopper all have flashier roles, it’s Morse who grounds the film with his honest sentimentality. Faced with the moral conundrum of looking out for his town or looking out for his brother, Morse is awe-inspiring with his levelheaded temperament. He’s cool under pressure, but will hop-to if need be. The final act of the film demands that Morse and Mortensen go to some pretty dark places, which they both do, with considerable boldness.

The Crossing Guard (1995)
John Booth
In front of Sean Penn’s camera again, Morse’s John Booth has just been released from prison for fatally running over a young girl while driving drunk. Once released, the girl’s father (an off-the-reservation Jack Nicholson) hunts Booth down and, in one remarkable, developing scene, tells Booth that he has three days to live. And here is the beauty of Morse’s performance: instead of breaking down and begging for his life (or running away from his troubles), Booth accepts his fate and decides to make the best of the little time he’s got. It's a revelation, mind you, that takes hold during the actual scene itself, not later in expository dialogue.

The Crossing Guard, much like Nicholson’s performance in it, goes a little off the rails toward the end, but whenever Morse is on screen, the movie is rooted in truth. The final scene, while corny and forced to some, is something I find comforting in its simplicity, which, in my eyes, is to be credited much in part to Morse’s performance.

Down in the Valley (2005)
The over-protective father role is nothing new, but when you’re squaring off against a creepy psychopath like Edward Norton’s Harlan Curruthers, it forces you to step your game up a bit.

Wade is a steady cop, trying to keep his head above water at home. His aggressive daughter, Tobe (played expertly by Evan Rachel Wood), decides to continue her teenage rebellion by dating Harlan, a quiet, unassuming man who also happens to be a wee bit insane. As Wade repeatedly asks Tobe to stop seeing Harlan, their confrontations grow more and more tumultuous.

Down in the Valley is a very good film, and its failed recognition should in no way reflect the lasting impact of its three core performances. Without revealing too much, let me just say that Wade’s suspicions ultimately prove true, resulting in one hell of a climatic showdown and some seriously dynamic acting.

The Hurt Locker (2009)
Col. Reed
Kathryn Bigelow’s masterful Best Picture winner contains three ingenious cameos, none better than Morse’s imposing Colonel Reed.

Walking briefly into frame, Col. Reed is not at all timid about sharing his admiration for Jeremy Renner’s character. After Renner has dismantled a rather large bomb, Morse stealthily approaches him, “Hot shit man, real hot shit,” he says with perfect comic wit. Morse is in the film for roughly three minutes, and he pricelessly steals every last second he’s on camera.

A great character actor makes due with what they’ve got. Cameo or starring role, Morse always manages to leave his stamp.

Treme (2010-present)
Lieutenant Terry Colson
Although Morse wasn’t given much to do in season one of David Simon’s criminally underseen drama, he excelled with the screentime he was given. The result? He was made one of the main characters of the far superior season two, of which the show has benefited greatly.

Lt. Colson is a lot like one of Simon’s most famous characters, Det. McNulty from The Wire. Sneaky, mischievous, and always willing to undermine the boss for the good of humanity.

Two of Morse’s scenes in particular stand out from season two, one seemingly slight, one undeniably harrowing. A brief montage of Thanksgiving dinner turns utterly heartbreaking as Morse is shown eating a TV dinner in the police station, not particularly minding that he’s there.

Another, far more intense moment demonstrates how a family-friendly nighttime parade could turn very violent very quickly. While on duty at the parade, Colson looks over and sees a teenage kid with a pistol under his belt. His face reads horror. Calculated horror. He keeps his cool and, in ways I won’t fully describe, manages to get the gun from the kid without anyone getting hurt. It’s an unbearably powerful sequence, made only more intense by Morse’s performance.

The final scene of season two made clear Colson’s intentions: his police department is dirty, and he plans to blow the whole scandal wide open. You can be damn sure I’ll be there to witness it.

The Best of the Best
Dancer in the Dark (2000)
Bill Houston
When we meet Bill Houston, he’s like most of the other characters in Lars von Trier’s poetic masterpiece: kind, affable, and soft-spoken. That is, until his character starts to evolve. First, he reveals a rather large secret to Björk’s indiscriminate character, and then… it happens.

In one extended sequence, in which Morse simply observes Björk in silence, we learn who Bill really is. Or rather, what he’s really made of. The result of this revelation sends the film into an unexpected frenzy, culminating in a grueling sequence of mistaken identity that can only be described as pure von Trierian.

It is very difficult for an actor to evoke such genuine, heartfelt emotion in one scene, and convey the exact opposite in the next. And because this is David Morse, these character shifts are so subtle they’re nearly unidentifiable. There’s no grandstanding or monologuing; no heavy breathing or tears. There is quiet deception and utter repulsiveness. It is a masterful performance, the best in the film, and that, my friends, is saying a hell of a lot.

I could say more, and boy do I want to, but it’d be criminal to ruin this film to unknown viewers. Morse’s performance, like the film itself, demands to be seen.

Other Notable Roles 
In John Adams
St. Elsewhere (1982-1988)
The Rock (1996)
Contact (1997)
The Negotiator (1998)
The Green Mile (1999)
Hack (2002-2004)
16 Blocks (2006)
Disturbia (2007)
John Adams (2008)

Previous installments of In Character include:
Michael Shannon
Emily Mortimer
John Hawkes
Jeffrey Wright
Elias Koteas
David Strathairn


  1. Nice. I'm a huge David Morse fan. Dancer in the Dark is the right choice for his best role, though there are plenty of contenders. He also brings weight to even silly films where he has small roles like The Long Kiss Goodnight.

    Another interesting performance is his guest appearance on Homicide: Life on the Street episode "Colors" from Season 3. Morse plays the cousin of Kyle Secor's Tim Bayliss and is involved in a shooting that may be racially motivated. It's worth checking out for sure.

  2. That's a really good way to describe it, bringing weight to those otherwise worthless films.

    You know, last year I bought the entire series of Homicide but only made it through the first season. I loved the show, don't get me wrong, but I think I decided to rewatch The Wire instead. I really need to sit down and watch the entire show.

  3. Morse is one of these guys that seem to be everywhere. Unfortunetly what is stuck in my head on the first place when thinking of him is Contact and my God, that twist was so bad :)

  4. Is it even fair to call that a "twist"? So so lame.

  5. I instantly recognized him from the photo, but man, all of the movie titles you put there are blanks for me....I mean, I can't associate them with him; weird- and I know I have seen him in at least 4 movies. He is very talented, anyway! Great post!

  6. Thanks! Check out Dancer in the Dark. It'll blow your mind.

  7. Great pick, he's definitely an underrated actor. He's great in everything I've seen him in so far: Disturbia, Proof of Life, Hurt Locker... I really should see more of his films and you've pointed out some good ones here, thanks!

  8. My pleasure. He's so good in everything, really. But the six I mentioned are definite standouts. Thanks for stopping by!

  9. I like Morse. I've seen his face a lot, but I think DANCER IN THE DARK is the only film I remember him in. And you're right, he is fantastic in it.

  10. I knew that was my favorite role of his, but when I rewatched the film last night, I was just completely blown away. Damn.

  11. Wow, I don't think I'd heard of The Indian Runner or The Crossing Guard, and I guess I hadn't heard of Down in the Valley, although the title sounded familiar. In any case, I haven't seen any of those.

    I've been meaning to watch Treme, and now I have another great reason to get on it.

    I remember being pretty excited when he was on House, but then they didn't really do anything great with his character. And then House started to suck anyway.

    Have you seen The Langoliers??? If so, why isn't it on here? ;)

  12. Dude Treme is fantastic, it's a lot like The Wire, minus the drugs. Yeah, I've never really like House that much, I remember Morse was on it, but I never got to see him in it.

    I've never ever heard of The Langoliers! Is it good?

  13. The Langoliers is pretty awesome in my opinion. David Morse, Dean Stockwell, a crazy Bronson Pinchot. It might be a little cheesier than I'd like to admit to myself, and the effects are pretty bad (I think it was made for TV), but the acting and story are fantastic. Based on something Stephen King wrote.

    David Morse is one of the central characters.

  14. Damn I'm gonna have to check that out. Thanks for the recco!

  15. This review was awesome; David Morse is by far one of my favorite actors. I don't think there is anyone who is so versatile with so many characters than he is. A few of my favorite gems (and we could really be here all day) is Hearts in Atlantis. He bookends the movie but does so much with so little. He can convey say so much with just a look and his resemblance to Anton Yelchin was uncanny. Inside Moves, his first movie but you can already see (after 10 years of being on stage) he was already a great actor. Crazy in Alabama, this was a wonderful performance, not a guy in uniform, not a mean guy just someone trying to keep his family sane while his sister is on the run/on trial for murdering her husband. Proof of Life, the affair between Crowe and Ryan ruined what would have been (and I still think it is) a great movie. Morse's portrayal of a kidnapped business man was top notch, physically and mentally. I also have to mention his comedy "Big Wave Dave's" with Adam Arkin, Jane Kaczmarek and Kurtwood Smith. David Morse was very funny and all the actors fed off each other. It was a shame it only lasted 6 episodes but thank God some of them are still on youtube. I hope he considers comedy in the future. The Crossing Guard is my favorite and John Adams was epic!

    1. Wow, you are a true Morse fan if there ever was one. Love this comment, thanks so much for leaving it!

      I haven't even seen a lot of the films you mentioned, but I will definitely be all over them now. I don't know if you watch Treme, but his character arc this past season was remarkable. The man is ungodly talented and deserves limitless roles.

      Thanks again for stopping by!

    2. Brilliant actor verry handsome 😍