Part of the reason we love character actors is the way they act as narrative shorthand. If Charles Dance shows up in a movie, you know he’ll be a stern, steely eyed patrician. If it’s Margo Martindale, we can expect her to serve up warm, homey scenery-chewing. And if Australian actor Jason Clarke appears as the onscreen husband to a pretty young actress, you can be damn sure she’ll be sleeping with another man before the lights go up.
We covered this topic in detail last year, but to recap: Ever since he played George Wilson in the 2013 Great Gatsby, Clarke has become Hollywood’s go-to cuckold. There was All I See Is You, where Blake Lively plays a blind woman who regains her sight, realizes that Clarke is a terrible husband, and hooks up with their well-endowed neighbor. Then there was Mudbound, where Carey Mulligan moves with Clarke to a ramshackle farm in Mississippi, realizes he’s a terrible husband, and has an affair with his brother, Garrett Hedlund. Finally, 2019 brought the one-two punch of Serenity, where Anne Hathaway knows from the beginning that Clarke’s a terrible husband, and seduces Matthew McConaughey so that McConaughey will kill him; and The Aftermath, where Kiera Knightley cheats on Clarke with Alexander Skarsgård, then realizes he’s not a terrible husband — a surprising twist for anyone who’s ever seen a Jason Clarke movie.
This is not a subject that Clarke relishes talking about. When GQ queried the actor about our earlier post, his response was a Paltrow-esque, “What is Vulture?” It’s possible he was peeved at the suggestion that playing romantic failures is all he does, which is not the case: Clarke has gone un-cuckolded in Chappaquiddick, Zero Dark Thirty, and Terminator Genisys, among others. But this week I learned of another potential reason for his reticence. At the time of the interview, Clarke was shooting Antonio Campos’s The Devil All the Time, now streaming on Netflix, in which he plays a guy who gets off on forcing young men to have sex with his wife. Maybe he just didn’t want to spoil anything?
The Devil All the Time, an ultra-violent slice of Appalachian Gothic about intergenerational trauma, gives its cast a lot of room to stretch against type, including but not limited to their attempts at West Virginia accents. Sebastian Stan plays a corrupt cop who sports a Haldemanian flattop and gets illicit late-night hand jobs. Robert Pattinson plays a preacher who talks in a high-pitched squeal the actor apparently refused to reveal before shooting began. Tom Holland, our friendly, fresh-faced Spider-Man, kills four people.
Clarke gets a different opportunity. Rather than revamp his image, the film allows him to embody the ur-Jason Clarke role, one where the darkness that underlays his long line of cuckolds finally comes to the fore. He’s first seen in a small-town diner, charming a waitress (Riley Keough) with his new camera. There’s a comforting familiarity to their interplay: You figure it’s only a matter of time before they get married, and then Keough’s wandering eye will turn toward one of the many A-List hunks in the ensemble. But that’s not quite how it goes. At the end of the scene, the film’s narrator informs us that Clarke and Keough will become serial killers, with a unique pattern: They pick up young male hitchhikers, goad them into having sex with Keough while Clarke watches, then murder them. Oh, and Clarke takes photographs of both the sex and the murders, which he keeps as souvenirs. (They even have a creepy serial-killer lingo: Keough is “the bait,” Clarke is “the shooter,” the victims are “models.”) Clarke often plays men struggling with their own powerlessness. Here, he’s totally in control, and all the more frightening because of it.
It’s the grimmest story line in a film packed to the rafters with grimness, but Clarke and Keough bring a lightness to the material that keeps it from sinking into the mire. She’s a little less into the whole murdering thing than he is, and he’s persnickety about it, as if she’s suggested they go somewhere other than Ruby Tuesdays tonight even though that’s where they always go. (Their story line also features the film’s solitary joke, when Clarke tries to get Keough to sing along to “Wings of a Dove” by Ferlin Husky, an old pal of the actress’s grandpa.) Clarke often gives a measure of sympathy to his terrible husbands — we pity them more than we fear them — but here he’s free to go to the most loathsome extremes. At the same time, thanks to his track record, there’s a disarming note to lines like, “You’re gonna fuck my wife, and I’m gonna take some pictures.” You can understand why the victims don’t quite comprehend how much danger they’re in. They’re hanging out with Jason Clarke, of course sex with his wife is on the menu.
And if you detect a little glimmer in his eyes, consider this: While Clarke has frequently played a cuckold onscreen, this is a landmark role for him — his first time playing an actual cuck. (A cuckold is someone whose wife merely cheats on him, a cuck is a guy for whom being cheated on is a sexual fetish.) To take the thing you’ve long been typecast for, spin it around, and weaponize it: What freedom that must be for an actor!
“I’ve never really been interested in just playing your old-school straight-up dude,” Clarke said in that GQ interview. And thank God for that. But we should also thank The Devil All the Time, for taking this phase of Jason Clarke’s career to its natural conclusion. Now, for his sake, can somebody please cast him in a romantic comedy?