Craig here with the second Take Three, where I look at a different character/supporting actor's work through three of their most notable films.
This week: Ben Foster
Take One: Stranger in a strange town
In watching the three films for this post there was something about seeing Ben Foster on screen that, at first, I couldn't put my finger on. It struck me particularly during 30 Days of Night that he kept reminding me of another, older actor. If you were take a look at a Ben Foster performance (in any of the three films mentioned here, and others besides) then watch Brad Dourif in any one of his countless roles, similarities in mannerism, appearance and acting style become apparent; at a push you might mistake them for being related. Dourif is one of the quintessential character actors (and a likely future candidate for this series) and if there's a career groove or performance style evident so far in Foster's work it's comparable to Dourif's. Both have often taken on roles exploring unsavoury aspects of human existence, often appearing as shifty or nervy characters, and neither have shied away from darker material; and both have a knack for wanton genre-hopping, too (sci-fi, western, cultish drama etc). And then there's always the polarising opinions they inspire in many folk. To me, they're different (generational) sides of the same coin, grafting away in careers where playing snivelling losers is an art and perfecting the intense oddball is the strict order of the day.
Had 30 Days been made twenty years ago I'd bet that Dourif would've been first choice to play the Stranger - a bedraggled, rotten-toothed wanderer - looking as if he hadn't slept for 60 days of night - who stumbles into the isolated town of Barrow, Alaska to forewarn the residents left behind of the impending approach of a particularly grisly gang of vampires ("board the windahs, try ta hide... they're comin'"). Foster's role is brief, a mere catalyst as character. He enters the film early but doesn't live to see the carnage he foretells: he gets in, chews his lines with degraded glee, then gets out. And he was the most interesting character in the film. His garbled Southern-tinged snarling (sounding somewhat like Elaine Stritch, if Elaine Stritch were a vampiric bag lady from Mississippi) whilst goading Josh Hartnett and Melissa George from a prison cell, provides some of the film's best moments - outside of the actual moments of carnage foretold. He's clearly relishing playing it low-down and creepy and upsetting the homely family apple cart ("Mr. and Mrs. Sheriff... so sweet, so... helpless... against what is comin'"). This type of role is a perfect fit for a character actor looking to expand his craft into new genres. Foster gets to have fun with it and - in true character actor style - does more with his limited screen time than the rest of the cast (save for George) do over the whole film.
Take Two: Low-down dirty dog
Alpha Dog may have been a male-centric Thirteen or a Bully just with more tattoos - and was somewhat drunk on the already tired and over-explored Larry Clarkisms of teenage ennui - but it was memorable for one good performance. Foster's Nazi-fixated meth-head (what is it about on-the-rise young actors playing Nazi skinheads?: Ryan Gosling in The Believer, Edward Norton in American History X and Foster here have all donned tatts and brandished bats early on in their careers) who goes ape over the kidnap of his brother by a gaggle of gangster wannabes, and spends the film attempting to exact revenge. Whenever he's on screen the film becomes charged with a daftly entertaining force: Foster's Jake Mazursky is the sole reason to watch the film.
His violent explosions and verbal diatribes - full of maniacal facial expressions, bulging eyes and nervy tics - are truly ridiculous but keep the film from being too nonchalantly cool for its own sake. It's like Blue Velvet's Frank Booth had a son, even more comically insane then he, who went immediately crazy upon vacating the womb and hasn't stopped ranting and raving since. His rage finds multiple outlets, as when he channels Bruce Lee and lays elaborate waste to a stoner gathering or showers a phone receiver with one of many verbal anger barrages. He's the ultimate party-pooper too - as witnessed in the scene where he literally shits on someone else's patch. Nowhere else in the film is any other actor remotely as watchable - or as preposterously transfixing - as Foster is. This kind of OTT showboating has served Nicolas Cage well (especially recently in Bad Lieutenant) and it never hurt Gary Oldman's career, so Foster deserves credit for bringing much-needed entertainment to the film. He cuts through the coolness on display and makes mockery of all the film's hip posing. And the good thing is that he rarely seems to draw attention to himself in his endeavours. Shame he's such a hateful figure - but then that's partly why he seems to be having so much fun with the role.
Take Three: just a small-town dude with a big city attitude...
If many folk saw him as someone who wildly overacted, a mouthy firebrand who tore large strips out of his role, along with the other characters, in Alpha Dog, then he added more fuel to the fire with his fiercely committed performance as Russell Crowe's ruthless right-hand man Charlie Prince in 3:10 to Yuma - a role that would've surely gained a more established, or at least more visible, actor a supporting Oscar nod. Again aggressively reaching for the ultimate maniac, he was able to match the main pairs' testosterone-heavy intensity whilst still maintaining an assured, and better-managed, sense of his character's narrative arc: he showed barely glimpsed nuggets of compassion and admiration which his itchy trigger-finger wouldn't, ultimately, let fully flourish; he couldn't be faulted for sticking to his guns. And he was the least "actorish" of the stars in the film. If you're positioned between Crowe and Christian Bale (and in a western no less - the shoutiest and manliest of all manly genres), the environment will be positively thick with the (desert) air of thespian grandstanding. Whilst Crowe and Bale were busy battling it out for leading man status, Foster held his own, upped his game ever-so-slightly and stole the film away from under both their dust-filled noses, giving the most appreciable performance of the film - nowhere more apparent than when Prince finally lets his guard down.
Throughout Yuma he rides the trails, steals and kills for, and with, Crowe's Ben Wade; Charlie Prince has lived only for serving him. His final scene with Crowe - and here be spoilers - where Wade reneges on his previous intention to escape his fateful train journey and effectively switch sides, has consequences for Prince after he guns Bale's Dan Evans down; Wade retaliates in kind and shoots Prince in the back. The look in his eyes as Wade fires a second bullet - this time tellingly at close range, to the chest - speaks volumes about honour and betrayal (maybe the most perceptive instance in a film which is all about such things). Prince is on the cusp of tears, his face opened up from its scarred grimace for the first and only time during the film, but Wade, perhaps aware of Prince's façade slipping, delivers a second, fatal bullet before any man-tears start. This is what a lifetime's devotion results in - and it's indelibly etched in Foster's eyes. It's a great moment of riveting acting in miniature - not a minute too late, and in a few brief seconds, it manages to reach back over the preceding film and retroactively suggests more to Prince than what was at first apparent. It's a signature moment in his most resounding performance to date.
With small or supporting roles in films such as The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, 11:14, Hostage, Big Trouble, The Punisher and Northfork - not to mention looking like a member of some weird angelic boyband in The X-Men: The Last Stand - he's mining a path through a workmanlike filmography, gaining momentum (and Pandorum) along the way. It's open to question whether he'll grab the eye of big casting agents some time soon - he hasn't as yet had the mid-career breakout role like, say, Jeremy Renner, although he received much acclaim for his role in The Messenger last year - but in the meantime trading in the kinds of roles that the likes of Brad Dourif made so effortlessly his own is no bad thing indeed. It points to longevity in his career and to more juicy, snivelling, and, more importantly, solidly-realised character parts for the folk who like to champion him to enjoy.