Wednesday, January 25, 2012

In Character: Guy Pearce

Ask me who my favorite living actor is and, without very much thought, I may quite easily say Guy Pearce.  I’ll see anything he’s in, doesn’t matter. Why? Because whether it’s a shitty Adam Sandler flick, a generic action movie, a psychological masterpiece, or a Best Picture-winning war film, Pearce makes it worthwhile.

He’s also, as you’ll see, arguably our greatest living chameleon. His voice, hair, build, mannerisms; it all varies by role. Rarely does he resemble what he actually looks like, or who he actually is. And, no offense to the real man, but I’m perfectly okay with that.

Five Essential Roles
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)
Adam Whitley/Felicia Jollygoodfellow
Interestingly enough, the most recent Guy Pearce performance I’ve seen is the one that put him on the map, and damn if it isn’t a dozy. As a loud-mouthed, free-spirited drag queen, Pearce presents something quite unlike anything he’s done.  

For starters: he’s actually funny. Don’t get me wrong, I love Guy Pearce, but the dude doesn’t exactly have a penchant for taking on overly humorous characters. Adam (or Felicia), however, is bloody hysterical. Really, who else can turn a flashback about being molested by their father into a genuinely hilarious gag? Adam, like the film as a whole, is funny, outrageous, and when appropriate, pleasantly sincere.

L.A. Confidential (1997)
Edmund J. Exley       
Pearce’s breakout role (at least in America) was as the straight-laced, wildly intelligent Ed Exley in Curtis Hanson’s masterful crime thriller. As Exley, Pearce is the constant voice of reason – a man unwilling to bend the rules, until his incredibly corrupt police department forces him to.

I love Spacey’s Jack Vincennes and Crowe's Bud White, but no character captivates me more here than Exley. In fact, Pearce is responsible for the film’s best, most crucial moment, when Exley calmly tells Spacey why he became a cop.

“Rollo Tomasi,” Pearce says.

“Is there more to that, or am I supposed to guess?” Spacey asks.

Oh yeah, lots.

The Proposition (2005)
Charlie Burns
The Proposition, as Pearce has said in interviews, is by far his favorite of all the films he has done. Fitting, given how brilliant (and brilliantly badass) it is.

The proposition in question is simple: Stanley, a stern, diligent lawman, tells Charlie Burns, the middle brother of a ferocious family of outlaws, that he has nine days to kill his older, psychopathic brother, Arthur – if not, Stanley will kill Charlie’s younger brother Mikey. So the gaunt, despondent Charlie sets off to find a man who cannot be found, exposing himself to a host of violent and thrilling situations.

The Proposition is a very good (and curiously overlooked) film. It’s shocking in its violence, unrelenting in its style, and fierce in its acting. Toward the end of the film, Pearce commits an unexpected act of violence that is followed by possibly the single greatest line delivery of his career. No need to spoil it here, but if you’re a fan of Pearce (or movies in general), The Proposition is not to be missed.

The Hurt Locker (2009)
Staff Sgt. Matt Thompson
Considering Pearce is in Kathryn Bigelow’s Best Picture winner for a matter of seconds, his character may seem an odd choice for this list. But Staff Sgt. Matt Thompson is precisely the type of performance that allows a character actor to thrive.

When I first saw The Hurt Locker, I knew next to nothing about the plot, and had virtually no knowledge of who starred in it. When Guy Pearce showed up in the very first scene, I was immediately enthralled. (Never mind that he’s gone just as quickly, because, you know, war is hell.) Many times in this series, I've mentioned that the mark of a truly great character actor is the ability to get in, get out, and leave your indelible mark.

Case in point.

Animal Kingdom (2010)
Sgt. Nathan Leckie
Much like The Proposition, Animal Kingdom is a far-too-hidden Australian wonder that will surely please anyone who views it.  The movie tells the story of the Cody family, a small group of people who lie, cheat, steal, kill, in order to fuel their criminal lifestyle.

The movie is full of deplorable (yet impossibly charismatic) characters, and by the time Guy Pearce shows up, some seriously heavy shit has gone down.  In short, I was expecting Pearce to follow suit and play one of the many crooked cops we see in the film, and it was wholly refreshing to observe the contrary. Sgt. Leckie, for all intents and purposes, is an earnest, straight shooter.  He aims to do good and instill justice, nothing more.

Leckie’s sense of determined purpose is much needed against the scum that occupies most of the film. The character could play as ordinary and boring, but not in Pearce’s hands. In fact, his controlled, heated conversation with Jacki Weaver near the end of the film is one of the movie’s best moments. He’s cool, calm and collected, but always on the edge of losing it. A true marvel of a performance.

The Best of the Best
Memento (2001)
Leonard Shelby
It’s undeniable: Guy Pearce’s most known performance is also his best. Leonard, for those unknown , is desperately trying to track down his wife’s killer. Problem is, he cannot retain new memories. To offset this condition, as he prefers to call it, he follows strict guidelines, taking scrupulous notes, shooting multiple Polaroid’s, and tattooing vital facts onto his body.

Memento, on paper, relies solely on its gimmick of playing in reverse order. Many films of this nature attempt to survive on its tricky narrative device, but writer/director Christopher Nolan is too smart for that, which is confirmed by his casting, among other things.  

I’ve always thought that Guy Pearce plays Leonard like a cute, lost, blonde, puppy relying on animal instinct to figure something out. He beats, he chases, and he kills innocent people, yet we always root for him, which is where the genius of Nolan’s film lies. We sympathize with a killer because we know that he thinks he’s doing the right thing. Every depraved action is done out of love and justice.

Leonard is funny (“I don’t, feel… drunk"), frightening (“I want my FUCKIN’ LIFE BACK"), clever (“No he’s… chasing me"), and, perhaps most significantly, terrifying. The final scene of this film (so, really the beginning) perfectly explains Leonard’s motivations for the story we’ve just witnessed. The information he has, accurate or otherwise, is entirely brought on himself. It’s an ingenious trick pulled off by Nolan’s tense script and fluid direction, as well as Pearce’s unrelenting madness.

Now, where was I?

Other Notable Roles
In Factory Girl
Ravenous (1999)
Rules of Engagement (2000)
The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)
The Hard Word (2002)
Factory Girl (2006)
First Snow (2006)
The Road (2009)
The King’s Speech (2010)


  1. I've seen him in many of these movies. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is a personal favourite. I've seen that movie four times and it just keeps getting better.

  2. Oh man, his performance is one of the reasons I love L.A. Confidential. Also, he needs to be in more movies.

  3. @Tyler I honestly had no interest in it, sounded really dumb to me. Christ, was I wrong.

  4. @MovieNut14 I agree. He's really picky in choosing his roles, which does make me value them more, but still, make more shit, dude.

  5. I do love Guy Pearce. Someone give him a leading role. He's awesome.

  6. Guy Pearce is AWESOME! Memento is my favourite movie of all time - mainly because he was so fantastic in it. I'm glad you pointed out his performance in Animal Kingdom, too, because he was fantastic in that.

  7. He is a fantastic actor, and my favorite performances are Memento, Animal Kingdom and Count of Monte Cristo (great movie, btw, I should re-visit it soon)! Excellent choice!

  8. @Stevee Taylor Yeah Memento is such a classic, and his restrained work in Animal Kingdom is definitely not to go unnoticed. Thanks for stopping by!

  9. @Aziza Thanks! I didn't really care for Count of Monte Cristo, but I did like him in it. Guess I found it rather ridiculous that a woman wouldn't recognize the love of her life simply because his hair is a little longer. Stupid.

  10. I love his performances in LA Confidential and Memento, but I've been a bit disappointed by some of his choices. You mention a few good examples like The Proposition, but it's still a bit thin for an actor of his talent.

  11. Really have to get around to seeing Animal Kingdom. Going to lock it in for this weekend.

    Loved Memento and LA Confidential and his performances in them!

  12. @Dan Yeah I've definitely been bothered by some of the roles he takes, but there isn't an actor out there that I can't say the same thing for. Wait, do you think The Proposition is thin? Or his role in it is thin? (Or both?) Man, I love that movie and love him in it.

  13. @Alex Thomas Animal Kingdom is very very unique, its use of sound, in particular, is something I really enjoy about it. Let me know what you think!

  14. Yes. Yes. Yes. I've been WAITING for this one. I must admit, I took him for granted until you pointed him out to me. A mistake I will never make again.

    I still need to so Momento. (Ridiculous that I haven't seen it, I know)

  15. Excellent write-up! Love Ravenous and Memento. Guy Pearce always delivers a good performance. Are you looking forward to Lockout?

  16. @Ty Thanks man! Lockout is definitely NOT my kind of movie, but I'll honestly see anything Pearce is in. So I'm game.

  17. I like Pearce a lot, but it seems to me he is kinda going off the Hollywood map - he either has these really small parts now or he stars in sucky movies like 'Dont be afraid of the dark".
    Great write up!

    1. Yeah I agree that that is kind of a bummer, but when someone is as talented as Pearce, I try my best to forget those movies exist. After all, if he didn't take work in flicks like that, he may not work in the smaller ones too, you know? Gotta get paid.

  18. My list of favourite Guy's performances perfectly matches with yours. Thanks for mentioning Animal Kingdom and The Hurt Locker esp. the former one.
    His performance was so good that you cannot find his performing trace but totally believed the existence of 'Sgt. Nathan Leckie'.

    1. Oh I couldn't agree more, I LOVE this work in both of those movies.

  19. For me it was Pearces role in the King Speech that made me a fan(kinda late i know, but that is just how it happened). It felt like everytime he was on screen he demanded my attention even though his character wasn't the most likable.

    1. Hey, better late than never! I was not a fan of The King's Speech, but I did think Pearce was, by far, the best part about it.