Kong: Skull Island is ostensibly a King Kong movie; hell, it’s right there in the title. Failing that, you’d at least expect Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson, the film’s big stars, to figure prominently. And they do, sure, and so does Kong, roaring and grunting and beating his chest, knocking helicopters out of the sky like a grumpy kid who hates balloons. But make no mistake: This is John C. Reilly’s film.
Reilly plays Hank Marlow, a pilot who was stranded on Skull Island during World War II. When the island is discovered in the 1970s thanks to recent developments in satellite technology, a group of explorers, scientists, and soldiers set out to “map” the island and find the big monster that they suspect is living there. (Some of them, anyway. For the others, the monster is kind of a nasty surprise.) But in addition to Mr. Kong and some other troublesome critters, they also find Marlow, who’s been living in the jungle ever since his crash landing. And boy, does he have a lot to say.
Kong has the good problem many modern ensemble movies suffer from: It has to figure out which of its many characters should be the protagonist. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that they’re all played by A-list actors: Larson is a photographer, Hiddleston is the team’s tracker, John Goodman is a scientist, and Samuel L. Jackson is a colonel whose rank is one of the film’s many nods to Apocalypse Now. When Reilly shows up, though, it instantly clears up that dilemma.
The name of his character, Marlow, comes from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the original text on which Apocalypse Now is based. (Notice the name of Hiddleston’s character, James Conrad, as well.) While Marlow isn’t a straight reproduction of the book’s Joseph Marlow, Reilly comes to serve a similar purpose in the narrative: He’s our guide, introducing us to the taxonomy of the island and the dynamic of its inhabitants, and criticizing the mindset of the people who have come to visit.
But while this character has, in the past, been the looking glass through which we see a dark, disturbing vision — think of Willard in Apocalypse Now — Reilly’s Marlow is the opposite. Sporting a David Letterman beard and a pretty hip flight jacket, he’s made the best of being a castaway, ingratiating himself with the locals and plotting, alongside adversary turned best friend Gunpei, to make their escape, a goal that’s been aborted since his buddy’s death. With the arrival of the film’s ostensible heroes, he finally gets that chance, though first he has to deal with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nietzschean intentions.
“To me, John C. Reilly is the human beating heart of the film in a lot of ways, because he has this clean simple narrative that you understand: This guy was here, he wants to get home, he’s gone a little crazy,” director Jordan Vogt-Roberts told Vulture recently. “It’s a really, really tricky part. He should break the movie. On page, if you describe that character to people, and even from the trailers, people will be like, ‘Oh, it feels a little weird and goofy.’ But when you see it in context, John’s performance, instead of taking you out of the moment, somehow makes it more real, more human. It gives it more pathos and weight, even though he’s saying these bizarre things, because it stems from a pure place.”
That’s the other part of Reilly’s performance in the movie: He’s really, really funny. Waving around Gunpei’s sword and projecting a perfect balance of bemused surprise, knowing wisdom, and unhinged excitement, he both plays host to the visitors and entertains them with the stopped-up humanity of someone who’s spent 30 years apart from civilization. Vogt-Roberts, who had previously directed the Sundance standout The Kings of Summer as well as a variety of television episodes, isn’t your typical monster-movie director, and he says he featured improvisation as a major aspect of his process. On set in Vietnam, he and Reilly did as much as they could to find the character in the moment, and a large portion of Reilly’s performance in the movie was ad-libbed.
While the rest of the film plays it mostly straight-faced, inserting some levity into what is otherwise a swashbuckling adventure into the heart of, if not quite darkness, than at least some serious shadow, Reilly lets loose, seeming to catch the other characters constantly off guard with his verve and vivacity. At one point, he tells John Ortiz’s prickly Victor Nieves that he’s going to stab him by the end of the night, the look on his face a sort of wild glee; at another, he says, with that same far-gone mania in his eyes, “This is a good group of boys! We’re all going to die together out here!” The years of isolation have taken an obvious toll, and it’s an essential element of the character. Marlow is not just the wild man, the clown; he’s also the insider, the holy man, the one who really gets it. In that way, it’s a signature John C. Reilly role, with the actor utilizing his significant comedic and dramatic gifts to render a character only he could play. And by the end of the film, he’s the one we really root for, the person we care about.
“Yes, it’s Kong’s movie, but in a weird way, to me, it’s actually Marlow’s story,” Vogt-Roberts says. “The movie starts and ends with him. Essentially, it’s about a guy who crash lands on this island, and then it’s this weird journey, where these other characters and creatures get involved, as he finds his way home.”