After decades of work investigating the masculine conscience, the star of Oppenheimer dares approach the white-hot shame at the center of everything
Cillian Murphy is the best supporting actor currently working, even when he plays the lead character. Murphy can be right in the middle of the screen—40 feet high, as he appeared at the Lincoln Square IMAX in Manhattan on Tuesday night—and still somehow appear like he’s working in service of someone, or something, else.
In Peaky Blinders, Murphy’s Tommy Shelby is less a man and more a location of ongoing violence, his trajectory mapped by class obligations and the idea of his absent father and the First World War. In 28 Days Later, he plays a man who wakes up so alone that London becomes a ghost. In Red Eye and Batman Begins, he plays villains so classically evil (and relentlessly middle-American) that the quivering of his scene partners, Rachel McAdams and Katie Holmes, filled up the screen.
That Murphy cranium, writ four stories tall, does its best to distract: all scoops and planes like an Easter Island head’s Irish cousin or Mount Rushmore by way of Subirachs. People (the press) have been funny about Murphy’s eyes and their surrounding orbital bones from the start. During the filming of Batman Begins, for example, Christopher Nolan apparently “kept trying to invent excuses” for Murphy’s Scarecrow “to take his glasses off in close-ups.” When The Guardian sat down with Murphy for a little promotional action before the movie’s release, his interviewer confronted him with Nolan’s compliment. “That’s very nice of him,” Murphy replied, staring into his cappuccino. The misery radiates off the page.
In that Guardian piece, Murphy’s face is staked out as a contradiction: It’s the occasion for the article but it’s also a charge laid against him. It’s a boring question, a familiar one, that nonetheless contains flickers of real mystery. Can a man be that pretty and also good at what he does? Can he keep an audience on his side looking that way? Does his gender work against his beauty or is it his secret superpower—one out of reach for women? Does the fact that actors use their faces to do their jobs make these questions relevant, permissible, or do they trap critical conversations at the level of the impolitic, impolite, superficial?
Studiously ignoring the fact of his unusual looks, Murphy has poured his energy into the transforming quality of his attention. His talent for listening and thinking on screen is how, when placed opposite an actor of equal ability, like Thandiwe Newton (Retreat) or Andrew Scott (The Delinquent Season), Murphy is able to build worlds. Set against a bad cast, he has the double-edged effect making his costars look wooden while improving the overall film with his presence.
Put in service of a movie like Nolan’s new biopic Oppenheimer, a face like this can become an instrument of history, a beauty made of stone and politics whose incomprehensibility opens up rather than locks down the movie’s meaning. This is exactly how Murphy rescues Oppenheimer, blazing a center into a script otherwise devoid of light. As the man who mothered Little Boy and Fat Man, weapons that murdered hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians, Murphy plays the ultimate supporting role to the bomb’s dark star and its acts, done in our names, of pure annihilation.
Born in 1976 in Douglas, Cork, Murphy grew up with normal parents—a teacher, a government worker—and got excited by acting in secondary school. He played in Frank Zappa-like bands as a teenager and started out studying law after school before dropping out to act in theater. He worked in Dublin and then London to raves. In a Financial Times review of a 2003 staging of Chekhov’s The Seagull, for example, Alastair Macaulay called his Konstantin “marvelous in its febrile swings of emotion.”
Disco Pigs was Murphy’s first proper role. First in Enda Walsh’s play, then in Kirsten Sheridan’s 2001 film adaptation, it’s a nasty comedy about two inseparable and delinquent teenage neighbors Runt and Pig, who were born on the same day. A two-hander between Murphy and Elaine Cassidy, they only really speak to each other, pursuing cheerful adventures in a world of their own construction. Cassidy is incandescently pure and lovely. Murphy meanwhile does the impossible: his violent episodes read comic, while his harebrained decisions feel logical. The film’s not perfect, but Murphy’s is a colossally committed performance. In the local booze shop, he demands a free drink, smashes a bottle on the cashier’s head, then trots off to triumphantly sing “You Really Got Me” at a pub karaoke night—and you’re still rooting for his girlfriend to kiss him.
The next year, he appeared in Danny Boyle’s surprise smash-hit horror, 28 Days Later. Yes, the zombies run, which makes the film scary, but it works because of the attention Murphy, Naomie Harris, and Brendan Gleeson pay to one another. All three climbed to the next rung of the Hollywood ladder after its release: one heavily populated by British—and Irish—actors who cost less than American celebrities and who deliver excellent value: your early-career Rosamund Pikes, Daniel Kaluuyas, Ben Whishaws. Murphy settled into that groove for a long time.
“I have always said publicly and privately,” Murphy told the Associated Press of his conversations with Nolan, “that if I’m available and you want me to be in a movie, I’m there. I don’t really care about the size of the part.”
“But deep down, secretly, I was desperate to play a lead for him.”
It’s funny: Oppenheimer is Murphy’s third time on screen contemplating the ethics of setting off an atomic bomb. In Sunshine, he was a space-traveling physicist trying to shoot one into the sun for the good of humanity, forced to decide whether to save himself or the world. In Aoife McArdle’s 2021 short, All This Unreal Time, he delivers a dreamy, surreal monologue while walking through Manchester, out to the countryside, as night passes into dawn. Speaking to nobody, he delivers a series of apologies, sometimes addressed to his “nan” and sometimes to the entire world, perhaps to a nature figure. He is so sorry: “Sorry I flinched, double backed, attacked when you kindly told me I was become him,” meaning his dad. Then: “That I was become death.”
In these lines, written by novelist Max Porter (with help from the Bhagavad Gita quotation made infamous by Oppenheimer), Murphy is talking about masculinity and death and atomic bombs and industrialization all in the same breath. Becoming one’s dad is like becoming death, which is like becoming a species that destroys its own home for no reason.
What connects them is winner’s guilt. What powers Murphy as a supporting player par excellence are his explorations of this emotion, especially where it falls beyond the purview of 20th-century masculinity. In The Wind That Shakes the Barley, for example, Murphy’s Damien O’Donovan is a young Irish man caught between the calculations of a war with the English that cannot be won but that is equally impossible to relinquish. This contradiction settles deep into the hearts of all the men in the film, taking on the larger shape of politics and trauma. In Red Lights, where Murphy plays a research assistant to Sigourney Weaver’s fraudulent psychic–busting professor, he holds a guilt inside his body that paces all the way through the movie, inexplicable until a plot twist is revealed in its last few minutes.
It doesn’t hurt that Murphy has a malleable face, transformed by a manic grin into Klaus Kinski (as in many moments from Peaky Blinders) or by sideburns into Gaz from Supergrass (as in Watching the Detectives). He also plays dumb very well: The keen intelligence of his character in Sunshine stays hidden until near the very end behind a sulky, adolescent attitude.
I am only just beginning to peel my flattened mind off the back of the massive screening at the AMC Lincoln Square. I saw what Nolan calls the “best possible experience” of Oppenheimer, the rare IMAX 70mm film presentation. The news wires tell us that the prints span over 11 miles of film stock, weigh some 600 pounds and run horizontally through the projectors.
The story follows Oppenheimer from his unstable student years in Europe to his position as mid-century avatar of destruction. In between, he was recruited to build his New Mexico death lab, Los Alamos, by the U.S. military. Walking a political tightrope, Oppenheimer had to recruit foreign physicists in order to complete the project (taking on the risk that some of them might be spies) while navigating the enormous security holes inherent to his sprawling, mad physics ranch.
The frame narrative, in black and white, follows government inquiries; color flashbacks recur in between. It’s a simple structure for an impossibly overdetermined subject. The story puts Oppenheimer through a rollercoaster of approval and rejection, his Jewishness and sympathies with various labor movements leaving him teetering on the edge of the U.S. government’s good books.
The auditory and visual experience was powerful. The explosions were, yes, loud. They rumbled through my body; my ears were ringing at the end. Oppenheimer is full of close ups, and the IMAX screen is enormously high and wide, so there’s a sense of intimacy that felt appropriately claustrophobic—a reminder of the uncanny product of enlarging human beings to gargantuan proportions. Unfortunately, Christopher Nolan’s scripts continue to get worse with each movie he insists on writing: Tenet (2020) is worse than Dunkirk (2017), which is worse than Interstellar (2014), and so on back to The Dark Knight Rises (2012), and Inception (2010), to his best script: The Dark Knight (2008).
The good parts are great: Cillian Murphy gets a lot of historical quotations, meaning that a fair chunk of his lines are predetermined. “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” is something Oppenheimer only said in a television documentary years later, but he was an avid reader of the Bhagavad Gita, from which the line is taken, throughout his life. An absolutely banging line of poetry, it has come to represent the inconceivable scale of the violence unleashed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki
The rest of the script is pure, undiluted exposition. Men in suits sit at desks and speak lines like, “This is the McCarthy era,” or “We’re now racing the Soviets.” A little later, we’ll hear that “It’s not fascism but communism that threatens us today.” During a meeting between nuclear physicists, a woman raises her hand to point out that, “We always have to take a moment to discuss whether the means justify the end.” In rebuttal, Oppenheimer tells her that, “I don’t know if we can be trusted with such a weapon. But I know the Nazis can’t. We have no choice.”
Through sheer, burning presence, Cillian Murphy acts through the challenge of hearing lines like, “History will judge us, Robert.” His unerring vocal and physical performance of this 20th-century man is in striking contrast to the contemporary voices of the majority of the actors around him, including Robert Downey Junior and Matt Damon, who appear to be playing themselves.
The women in the movie are one-dimensional. Emily Blunt is required to cry and to sneakily drink out of a hip flask in almost every scene she appears in. Worst of all, several of the laboratory scenes are written according to the rhythm of a thriller. Oppenheimer will spin around a room, shouting names and assigning them quadrants of the atomic bomb to develop, as if research science were subject to the pacing of battle. The context is an emergency, but Nolan pours its sense of exigency into parts of the film’s dialogue that just don’t make sense.
What’s here is not naturalistic dialogue, and it forces the film’s interconnecting, asynchronous sections into the atmosphere of tableaux, heavy with symbolism and light on humanity. A generous viewing of the film would let all these other matters melt away in the face of Murphy and how he has inhabited the central quandary that underlies the bomb: Having survived, how do we live with ourselves? A more expansive take would frame Murphy’s incandescent performance in the historic moment in organized labor in the movie industry.
The cast of Oppenheimer walked out of the London premiere in solidarity with striking writers and actors. A line can be drawn from the terrible working conditions and financial crimes being uncovered by the film industry’s strikes to the kind of movie Oppenheimer is. The concentration of power degrades the final product. When a director is as powerful as Christopher Nolan, perhaps there was no hope for a better script.
Only Cillian Murphy, the Picasso of guilt, could take a void like the one in the middle of Oppenheimer and go through it, regret painted across his own features. By the end of this long and unforgiving movie, he has conjured a white-hot fireball of self-reproach and defensiveness, and then—as if it were the lightest thing in the world—leaves it in our hands.
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