This article has been updated with Farrell’s most recent performances, including The Batman and After Yang.
Colin Farrell is burdened with one of the great faces among modern leading men. Pleading eyes that can be romantic one minute, cold as ice the next. A pursed mouth that can speak to his lostness or his anger, depending on the situation. And yet, there’s an intensity to his demeanor as well. (I mean, come on, he’s even the face of a Dolce & Gabbana perfume called “Intenso,” which really should be a joke, but somehow isn’t.)
All this has led to a fascinating career where he was anointed (somewhat incorrectly) early on as a pretty-boy action star, and has gradually proven over the years that he might be better suited to other roles — haunted romantics, brooding villains, outsize weirdos, and just plain complicated humans. Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos mined a new, interesting vein in the actor’s persona a few years ago with the bizarre and highly symbolic dramas The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which utilized Farrell’s mostly untapped capabilities as a deadpan performer. Now the actor is back onscreen with two radically different performances, in two radically different movies: The Batman and After Yang.
This actor’s career has indeed been an odd journey: He’s gone through the Hollywood machine’s desperate attempts to create the Next Big Thing, and has emerged on the other side as a genuinely great performer who now does way more interesting work than what the industry once had planned for him. Here are all of Colin Farrell’s movie performances, ranked.
49. American Outlaws
This might be the best Colin Farrell has ever looked in a film — floppy-haired, fresh-faced, and happy. Unfortunately, this is also one of the worst performances he’s given, in one of the most godawful movies he ever made — a moribund, cliché-riddled Western that at times plays more like a movie-within-a-movie you might see in a showbiz satire like The Player. Farrell portrays Jesse James, whom we first see as a heroic, impulsive Confederate guerilla fighting Yankee soldiers. (Remember when American movies regularly tried to depict the Confederates as the good guys? Sadly, it was not too long ago!) Coming home, he and his brother Frank discover that the railroad is trying to wrest their beloved mother’s property from her, and they wind up declaring war on the railroad and on the Pinkerton detective agency protecting it. The action scenes are tired, and the plot is howlingly predictable, but what’s even worse is that Farrell — despite his youthful, bright-eyed good looks — demonstrates surprisingly little charisma. There’s a certain unpredictability and fleet-footedness required to play this budding outlaw, and the actor can’t convey any excitement in the part.
48. Artemis Fowl
Colin Farrell has been the best thing in any number of terrible films, but even he can’t survive being sucked under with the wreckage of this absolutely incoherent, much-delayed big-budget Disney disaster, where he plays the young hero’s missing father. He was reportedly cast during reshoots, and it kind of shows; he’s not exactly called on to do much acting other than deliver some lines to paper over massive emotional and narrative gaps in the movie. It doesn’t help. The whole thing remains completely disjointed and impossible to follow.
Maybe this seemed like a good idea once upon a time, and to be fair, Oliver Stone’s ambitious historical epic does have its defenders (though they’ll argue over which of the film’s many cuts is best). But the bleached-blond Farrell seems pretty lost as history’s greatest conqueror: It’s hard to imagine this guy leading anything, let alone of the most legendary empires of all time. Farrell fares a bit better in the picture’s more intimate scenes, where his anxious, conflicted demeanor makes more sense. But all in all, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is a case where a director needed a star to help finance his big-budget epic, and wound up with the most ill-suited one imaginable.
46. Winter’s Tale
Woof. As the charmed, turn-of-the-century thief who winds up falling for a consumptive woman while being chased by his demon-father Russell Crowe, Farrell gets consumed by the insistent, annoying chaos of Akiva Goldsman’s adaptation of Mark Helprin’s fantasy-romance; there’s very little chemistry between him and co-star Jessica Brown Findlay, and he looks unconvinced during the film’s magic sequences. He does fare a bit better in the emotional final section, set in the present day, when his character (who hasn’t aged one bit in 80 or so years) tries to recover his past and reconnects with the memory of his lost love.
45. Total Recall
This remake of the 1990 sci-fi classic, about a man who discovers that he’s a futuristic resistance hero whose mind has been wiped clean, was a terrible idea right from the beginning, and putting Colin Farrell in there didn’t make it any better. He brings neither Arnold Schwarzenegger’s comically imposing presence from the earlier Paul Verhoeven hit, or the dim-bulb Everyman ordinariness of author Philip K. Dick’s original conception. Instead, he seems like a cut-rate action star cast in a big-budget remake intended to dilute this futuristic meta-journey of anything distinctive or weird. Among the low points of Farrell’s career, and one of the biggest signs that maybe the whole blockbuster action-hero thing wasn’t really for him.
44. Drinking Crude
There does not appear to be any way — legal or illegal — to see the first credited role of Colin Farrell’s movie career, playing a relatively minor part in this obscure, low-budget Irish indie drama. But I’m just going to go ahead and assume there’s no way it’s worse than anything in Winter’s Tale or Total Recall.
43. The Recruit
Legendary spymaster Al Pacino finds brilliant tech-head Colin Farrell and recruits him into the CIA, hinting strongly that the young man’s late father was also working for the organization. As he undergoes weeks of brutal training at the Farm, our young hero has to decide whether he really wants this job. Then, after his training, he finds himself thrust into a complicated operation rooting out a double agent, who also happens to be the woman he loves. It’s a dumb thriller posing as a smart thriller, but the lackluster performances give away its fundamental hollowness: Pacino does his usual tired-man-barking-orders thing, and Farrell does his confused-puppy-dog thing; he never really sells us on the desperation of this supposedly intense and troubled young man adrift in a world filled with betrayals left and right.
42. Hart’s War
In this early starring role, Farrell played a young American lieutenant in a Nazi POW camp who has to defend a Black soldier accused of killing a racist staff sergeant. He’s serviceable in the part — an innocent blueblood unversed in the cruelties of war — but the film’s simplistic morality and its paint-by-numbers plotting does none of the cast any favors. Farrell did gain notice for the part, mainly because of his striking looks. But this is one of his weaker efforts: His acting is as drained of energy as the rest of the movie.
41. Ask the Dust
In Robert Towne’s visually striking but dramatically inert adaptation of John Fante’s novel, Farrell plays an aspiring writer who moves to Los Angeles and falls in love with a beautiful Mexican waitress, played by Salma Hayek. It’s a tough, awkward character — Farrell treats Hayek like shit at first, before they gradually grow closer, and there’s little narrative logic to his actions — and there’s only so much the actor can do with it. And while the chemistry between the two romantic leads is solid, the movie never connects emotionally. The main culprit is Towne’s way-too-precious filmmaking, but Farrell’s performance also offers little in the way of surprise or inspiration.
After the marvelous In Bruges, Farrell and director Martin McDonagh teamed up again for this grotesquely violent meta-comedy, in which the actor plays a struggling screenwriter who winds up in the middle of a tangle of criminal scenarios as he attempts to gather material for his script. He is therefore at the center of this film, and yet somehow also curiously absent: He’s playing a straight man for the other characters — all the psycho-killers and romantic weirdos, played by the likes of Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken. It’s a selfless performance, to be sure, but what’s the point of casting Colin Farrell in a movie like this without giving him something meaningful to do? It doesn’t help that, for all the script’s postmodern expectorations, the story wraps up in debilitatingly conventional fashion.
There was an opportunity here, in this thriller about an elite, maverick Los Angeles S.W.A.T. team that has to guard a captured French drug kingpin who’s just publicly offered $100 million to anyone that can rescue him from the authorities. The early training scenes — in which Farrell’s brooding but ultimately loyal cop gets to channel his rage and frustration — are probably the best. But it eventually becomes a mind-numbing action film that gives its talented cast (which also includes Samuel L. Jackson, Michelle Rodriguez, LL Cool J, and a fresh-faced Jeremy Renner) precious little to do.
Along with Johnny Depp and Jude Law, Farrell was one of three friends of Heath Ledger’s who offered to help complete his role in Terry Gilliam’s comic fantasy, after the young actor’s untimely death in 2008. As such, his performance is … odd. He plays a through-the-looking-glass version of Tony, Ledger’s con-artist character, and his is the slimiest of the four Tonys in the film — which is perhaps appropriate, given Farrell’s past hard-partying bad boy reputation. The film itself is genuinely underrated — slammed by critics upon release, it’s quite magical and moving — but it’s hard to appreciate Farrell’s performance when so much of what he’s doing feels like a variation on what Ledger himself did so much better.
37. Ordinary Decent Criminal
Farrell didn’t get all that much to do in this early bit as a small-time goon working for a folk-hero gangster played by Kevin Spacey (who reportedly discovered Farrell and asked him to join the cast). The show here is Spacey’s — his Michael Lynch, based loosely on real-life Irish hood Martin Cahill, operates in full sight of the authorities, who remain frustratingly unable to bring him to justice. Meanwhile, he lives with two women — his wife and her sister — and their kids, and is generally well-liked by the community. Farrell, by contrast, plays a brusque, dim henchman named Alec, who’s there mostly to look tough and briefly talk about Star Wars. It is fun, however, to see him act opposite a very young Christoph Waltz, here playing a Dutch art expert enlisted to help fence an invaluable Caravaggio painting.
Tim Burton’s live-action remake of the animated Disney classic about a flying elephant is actually better than you’ve been led to believe: The director has loads of fun with the circus setting and the CGI title character. But the human characters in the film don’t get all that much to do. Farrell does cut a dashing, likable figure as Holt Farrier, a World War I vet and amputee whose kids become Dumbo’s trusted pals. He’s actually good enough in the part that at times one wishes the film were more about him.
35. Fright Night
Farrell keeps from camping it up too much in this remake of Tom Holland’s 1985 cult classic about a vampire who moves in next door; he plays the handsome bloodsucker as a pseudo-greaser type, and he’s reasonably convincing in the part. But it’s a part designed for a more flamboyant performance in a crazier, funnier film. We know the actor can do flamboyant, but this movie takes itself — and its villain — too seriously. That said, Farrell does get a couple of inspired throwaway moments in there; watch how, in the middle of a bit of standard-issue villainous gloating, he hisses defensively as he has to avoid a random ray of sunlight. More of that, please.
34. Dead Man Down
A deceptively strange, gonzo revenge thriller, this one’s got Farrell as a Hungarian engineer and gangland henchman who infiltrates the crime organization that killed his family and exacts methodical, at times bizarrely over-the-top, vengeance. Along the way, he also falls for his neighbor Noomi Rapace, who enlists his aid in settling some of her scores. It’s a marvelously stupid movie, and the two leads have no chemistry, but there’s also something wonderful about the straight face Farrell has to keep as the plot goes completely bonkers around him.
33. Cassandra’s Dream
Woody Allen’s 2007 drama, starring Farrell and Ewan McGregor as two brothers who get sucked into a murder plot, isn’t well liked, and Farrell’s performance is liked even less. But hear me out here: Allen’s story focuses on the corrosive power of guilt, and on the different effects it has on two very different people. As the weak-willed, gambling-addicted younger sibling, Farrell is all nerves and fidgets. It’s a broad performance that seems vaguely comedic, in one of Allen’s less-comic efforts — which explains the dissonance. But the actor does make for a compelling contrast to McGregor’s smooth, calculating operator. Farrell’s turn feels less like a full-blooded human and more like just one part of a complex equation — which is in keeping with the highly structured and allegorical nature of Allen’s film.
32. Pride and Glory
This overheated drama about a family of NYPD cops caught up in rampant corruption boasts several excellent performances, including a very well-cast Farrell as the hard-driving, embittered, black sheep who leads a crew of cops who take out hits, deal drugs, and take payoffs. If nothing else, the film is yet more proof that Farrell often fares better playing a villain than a hero — if only he was given more opportunities to do so in more interesting movies. Alternately intense and melancholy, he conveys genuine ruthlessness while also subtly humanizing this monster.
31. Veronica Guerin
Farrell shows up for all of a minute in this drama about a real-life crusading Irish crime reporter played by Cate Blanchett. Guzzling a beer outside a store and yelling at a soccer game on TV, he gets chatted up by Blanchett’s character, offering his insights about Eric Cantona before inviting her out for a pint nearby. It’s just a flash of a performance, but it has a real electricity, which tells you why this guy became a star. Plus, you get the sense that this is what the real Colin Farrell might have been like, once upon a time.
As the silent, determined enforcer chasing our heroes in J.K. Rowling’s expansion of the Harry Potter universe, Farrell gets another rare chance to play a villain, and he’s quite good in the part — an opaque, driven, mysterious figure. There’s a reason the film keeps us from getting to know him too well, because … well, because (spoiler alert) he fucking turns into Johnny Depp at the end. Did your theater groan as audibly as ours did when that twist came?
The first thing you need to know about Solace is that its script originally started life as a sequel to the serial-killer classic Se7en. The second thing you need to know is that it’s quite lousy, a sodden mess of serial-killer thriller clichés combined with annoying music-video-style interludes that look like someone tried to make a David Fincher film after only hearing a description of a David Fincher film. The third thing you need to know is that Colin Farrell only shows up in the final 40 minutes, as the serial killer in question — a powerful clairvoyant who is pursued and hunted down by distraught retired FBI clairvoyant Anthony Hopkins (no, really). But shocker — Farrell actually does a decent job here, swiftly making his way through reams of explanatory dialogue with just the right (here’s a word you’re going to be hearing a lot) intensity. But the whole project is already off the rails before he arrives; there’s nothing he can do to save it.
28. The Gentlemen
I’m not going to try and describe the plot of Guy Ritchie’s convoluted, star-packed action-comedy, but Colin Farrell is by far the best thing about it. In part because, as “Coach” — the avuncular, athleisure-sporting trainer of a group of dumbshit boxing students who’ve ripped off powerful pot baron Matthew McConaughey — Farrell seems to be the one free radical in a movie otherwise filled with characters who seem stuck in their parts. He’s calm one minute, psychotic the next; meek one minute, a volcano of moves the next. He also gives the funniest performance in a movie that’s been billed as a comedy (a fact which should have been made clearer to the rest of the cast). Every time he appears, it feels like a breath of much-needed oxygen. Farrell doesn’t get much screen time, but it’s a tremendous demonstration of his range.
It’s amazing to think that for one of his most over-the-top roles, Farrell didn’t do much talking. His performance as the deadly Irish villain Bullseye was one of the few high points for this misbegotten Ben Affleck superhero vehicle, a modest hit at the time that nobody — not even Affleck — likes now. But maybe it’s not so odd that this wild turn was so quiet: Farrell often has a monotone line delivery that sets off his more theatrical gestures. Here, however, he gets to run free and be just plain weird. Brazen, physical, able to do more with one (yes) intense gesture than with reams of dialogue, his Bullseye is transfixing. Again, it bears repeating: Colin Farrell should have been playing villains all along.
You can see what Colin Farrell is capable of in the disturbing first scene of John Crowley’s feature-directing debut, as he motormouths and charms a lovely cashier before punching her right in the face and robbing the register: Farrell’s vitality, his menace, his ability to both sweet-talk and threaten – it’s all on display in those opening moments. Unfortunately, the rest of Crowley’s Dublin-set film is a not-particularly-insightful, we-are-all-connected story of the kind that was quite popular back in 2003. Farrell is electrifying whenever he’s onscreen — a brutish crook that you can’t tear your eyes away from — but in some ways his is the least developed of the many characters in this diffuse comedy-drama.
Steve McQueen’s underrated heist drama features one of the great ensembles of recent years, led by Viola Davis as the wife of a supposedly deceased master thief (Liam Neeson) who decides, along with her fellow widows, to complete one last heist that her husband had been planning. Farrell plays the fast-talking, politically ambitious, and incredibly cynical scion of the wealthy and powerful family that our heroes (or would they be anti-heroes?) are targeting. Farrell’s oiliness makes him a great foil, but it also makes him weirdly compelling. You could imagine a whole other movie just about this character and his dark, complicated relationship with his father (played by a supernaturally sleazy Robert Duvall).
Colin Farrell as a gay baker? Sure, why not. He plays a young, easygoing wannabe-hippie who, after successively losing every member of his family, moves in with the family of his best friend Jonathan (played by Dallas Roberts as an adult) and then begins to have feelings for him. The bulk of the film actually concerns the complicated love triangle between the two and their beautiful bohemian housemate (Robin Wright), and Farrell is compelling as the innocent — the latter-day flower child who lets experience wash over him, and never really brings himself to make a decision about who he is and what he wants to be. Suddenly, the actor’s pleading eyebrows, his almost babylike pout — the very features that sometimes mark him as unreadable — turn him into a lost, gentle soul unsure of his place in the world. Does it sometimes feel like he’s trying a little too hard to move us? Maybe, but it’s a tender, touching performance nonetheless. Plus, he looks adorable with a mane of long, flowing hair.
This dreadful pseudo-action film stars Jessica Chastain as the titular hitwoman-with-a-conscience who is struggling with her past, with her family, with alcoholism, and so forth. It’s a movie that hates itself, basically, and it doesn’t even give us any decent action scenes. But it comes to life whenever Colin Farrell is onscreen. He plays the big boss as a smug, housebound Irish sadist, and watching him interact with John Malkovich, who plays Ava’s handler, is a genuine delight — two hams going at one another with abandon. It isn’t exactly a high point of Farrell’s career, but it’s a testament to his abilities: He elevates the material through sheer magnetism.
22. Crazy Heart
It’s a little jarring when Colin Farrell shows up in this drama about a drunk, has-been country-and-western singer (played by Jeff Bridges, who won an Oscar for his role) hitting rock bottom. The younger actor plays a hot, rising country act who was mentored by Bridges’s Bad Blake and still thinks the world of him, despite a falling out. It’s the kind of part that should be confrontational; Farrell’s character seems to be everything Bridges’s is not. But there’s a surprising amount of compassion there: He still respects and loves Bad Blake, and wants to help him out. It’s a minor-key performance, and amounts to little more than an extended cameo, but Farrell brings quite a bit of soul to it.
Take a step back and consider the part Colin Farrell plays in Neil Burger’s bizarre sci-fi thriller. The film follows a mission to colonize a distant planet, and takes place on a spaceship populated by an army of young people who will give birth to the generation that will ultimately do the colonizing. As their hormones slowly take over, however, the placid space mission degenerates into a chaotic landscape of fucking, fighting, deceiving, and conspiring. Farrell plays the quiet, reflective, mild-mannered scientist in charge of all these crazy young people. Let’s say that again: Colin Farrell plays the quiet, mild-mannered, mature one. It’s a really striking turnaround from the image he used to have. He’s also probably (yet again) the best thing about a movie that is itself a little too out of control for its own good.
20. The War Zone
Farrell makes a relatively brief appearance in Tim Roth’s almost unwatchable grisly and nightmarish incest drama. He plays the boyfriend of the protagonist’s older sister, a girl who is regularly being molested by her father. Though this is a well-acted film, everything takes a step back to director Roth’s attempts to build an almost impenetrable atmosphere of gloom and despair. In that sense, however, Farrell’s naturally grim demeanor fits right in.
This turgid but heartfelt Joel Schumacher film about a group of young men training to go to Vietnam, well after the war was declared unwinnable, was a flop upon release, and yet for many American viewers it also served as an early introduction to Colin Farrell’s substantial charms. He plays Buzz, the loose-cannon draftee whose anti-authoritarian ways are a direct response to his open feelings against the war, and his sheer charisma is undeniable. For all his anarchic uncontrollability, Buzz is a natural leader — someone that everyone else immediately defines himself in relation to — and Farrell is perfectly cast on that score. The actor does a terrible Texas accent, however; that it doesn’t bother us too much is a testament to his magnetism.
18. After Yang
Kogonada’s mournful sci-fi drama takes place in a world where people can buy robot children and follows all the sorrow that comes with the arrangement. But it also takes place in a world where emotions are deeply muted, which puts the onus on the actors to convey their agony in the subtlest of ways. It’s an interesting challenge for Farrell, playing a father who bought a companion brother robot for his adopted daughter and is now struggling with that robot’s malfunction and “death.” He can’t be ironic-comic deadpan — which we know he’s excellent at, thanks to his performances in films like The Lobster. The film not only requires a lot of restraint from him, it also places him front and center as a kind of audience surrogate: Much of the narrative involves him learning about the long, hidden former life of his robot son, so he has to do a lot of reacting while still not showing a lot of emotion. It’s an admirable performance with a deceptively high degree of difficulty.
17. London Boulevard
As a reformed ex-con looking to go straight by taking on a job as a handyman and bodyguard for a movie star played by Keira Knightley, Farrell is all coiled yearning and rage in The Departed writer William Monahan’s stylish, messy nod to British crime thrillers. Our hero is also being coveted by a crime boss, and as he gets pulled further and further into this world, Farrell has to show his inner violence and anger breaking through. Watching him try to hold it all together is both gripping and moving.
In Danis Tanovic’s underseen drama, Farrell plays an Irish war photographer who gets separated from his best friend and colleague in Iraqi Kurdistan in the prelude to Saddam Hussein’s 1988 extermination campaign against the Kurds. Then he’s horribly wounded, and returns home a broken man. Now, he has to confront his trauma and his hidden memories of the events he witnessed with the help of Spanish psychotherapist Christopher Lee (!). Farrell is more reactive and physical than usual: This character is defined less by what he says and more by what he refuses to, and by the toll this takes on his decaying body. The movie itself can be uneven, but watching Farrell and Christopher Lee play off one another is wonderful.
15. The Beguiled
For Sofia Coppola’s remake of the 1971 Don Siegel drama, Farrell took on a role originally played by Clint Eastwood, as the wounded Union soldier who is sheltered and nursed by a group of young women in a seminary in Confederate Virginia. Whereas Eastwood played Corporal McBurney as a charismatic sleazeball, Farrell is more subdued: He plays him as a coward, his confusion and vulnerability eventually leading to paranoia and manipulation. It’s a far more complex acting job, in part because Coppola wants us to see him in all the many ways the women see him. It’s a marvelous bit of casting, and Farrell delivers.
14. The Batman
In Matt Reeves’s Robert Pattinson–starring superhero epic, Farrell is unrecognizable playing crime boss the Penguin under acres of makeup that make him look like a balding, aging character actor. His over-the-top accent adds to the absurdism of his casting. But he also happens to be wonderful in the part — the funniest thing in the film — and the fact that we know it’s Colin Farrell under all those prosthetics somehow enhances the effect. True, it seems pointless to cast Colin Farrell in this part and not really use his face or his physique. But he’s such a blast that you might not care.
13. The Way Back
His accent is thick and his teeth are a mess. In Peter Weir’s true-life survival drama about a group of Gulag prisoners who make their way across a vast stretch of the U.S.S.R. and into the Himalayas, Farrell plays a stab-happy sleazebag who nevertheless proves of value during the escape. He’s a true believer who has been betrayed by the Soviet system, and yet still retains some loyalty to his homeland: The scene when he refuses to cross the border, thus opting not to choose freedom, is surprisingly touching. It’s one of the more stylized turns of Farrell’s career, and he doesn’t always nail the accent, but his energetic performance is still compelling.
Denzel Washington is front and center for pretty much the entirety of Dan Gilroy’s messy-but-underrated drama about a brilliant, awkward, idealistic legal savant who finds himself working for a fancy law firm. As the slick attorney who owns the big firm, Farrell at first seems like the very picture of a smug, smooth-talking operator. But this isn’t that kind of movie, for the most part. Farrell’s character is himself a man who retains some ideals — he’s just been a realist for too long. Almost all of Farrell’s scenes are opposite Washington, and they make a fascinating contrast in energies: one completely in control, the other cracking at the seams. Just the simple fact that Farrell holds his own against one of the greatest actors of this or any other generation is noteworthy. That he manages to invest his own slippery character with lots of fascinating depth is quite an accomplishment.
There’s no penalty for going totally broad in a comedy like this, and Farrell is clearly having an insane amount of fun as Jason Sudeikis’s comb-over-sporting, martial-arts-obsessed cokehead jerk of a boss. Indeed, you really wish there was more of him in this hit about a trio of schlubs plotting to murder their ghastly bosses. It feels like an extended cameo — à la Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder — when, in truth, it could have been the whole movie. And instead of doing a whole bunch of dumb anonymous action films, Farrell should really have been cast in more parts like this. He has a marvelous gift for comedy.
10. Phone Booth
As a sleazy, lecherous publicist pinned in a Manhattan phone booth by a faceless sniper on the other end of the line, Farrell goes from smug condescension to breathless victimhood pretty effortlessly. Joel Schumacher’s claustrophobic thriller–cum–morality tale wasn’t particularly well liked when it opened (its release was delayed partly by the real-life drama of the D.C. sniper attacks), but it’s a tight, sharp little film, the intensity of its premise only occasionally muddied by the director’s attempts to work in various action theatrics or over-the-top histrionics. Schumacher had already mined Farrell’s charisma in the underseen Tigerland. Here, he effectively uses the actor’s range in a bigger (well, “bigger”) movie.
9. Miss Julie
August Strindberg’s savage chamber drama gets transported to Ireland in Liv Ullmann’s sharp, surprisingly suspenseful adaptation. Farrell plays John, the ambitious and chatty servant who is seduced by the mistress of the house (Jessica Chastain), as a nervous bundle of energy who becomes more agonized and frantic over the course of the film. The whole movie works on multiple layers: Ullmann tempers and interrogates the misogyny of Strindberg’s original text, and the psycho-sexual conflicts she lays bare require a combination of physicality, intimacy, and theatricality. Farrell is more than up to the task.
This period drama about the writing of the movie version of Mary Poppins was originally presented as the Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks Show, with the former playing author P.L. Travers and the latter playing Walt Disney. But oddly enough, it was Farrell, portraying Travers’s alcoholic father in flashbacks to her childhood in the Australian outback, who really shone. Maybe he connected with his own struggles with substance abuse, or maybe he relished the ability to do a lot with a little, but the actor’s brief, quiet turn as a troubled, weak man is unforgettable in this otherwise underwhelming film.
After their collaboration on The Lobster, director Yorgos Lanthimos cast Farrell in yet another of his symbolic, surreal allegories. This time, he’s a world-renowned surgeon forced into making an unthinkable choice when confronted by the child of a deceased patient. Here, Farrell’s deadpan becomes a vessel not of submerged romantic longing, but of a mixture of guilt, grief, indecision, and rage. For all its pointed absurdities, this is an incredibly tense drama, and Farrell’s frozen face is one of its greatest weapons.
In Neil Jordan’s underrated romance, Farrell plays Syracuse, a fisherman and divorced dad who one day hauls up a mysterious woman out of the water. All indications suggest that she might be a selkie, a mythical, mermaidlike creature with magical powers. But Jordan grounds the magical realism: The film starts off in a fantastical vein and works toward something sadder, darker, more (wait for it) intense. And the haunted Farrell fits right in with the bleak, otherworldly milieu: He’s a broken man — a recovering alcoholic with a sick child and no real life to speak of — and the actor walks a fine line between cautionary tale and romantic hero.
Here’s an excellent example of a great director looking at Colin Farrell and understanding how to use his talents. As the slick DOJ agent who’s pursuing runaway cop Tom Cruise in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s story — about a world where the police force can stop all crime before it happens — Farrell has to play a nemesis without ever going into full-blown villain territory. It’s a delicate balance: For much of the story, the protagonists (and, by extension, we) view Farrell’s agent with fear; he is, after all, the guy chasing our heroes. And yet, at heart, he’s just a guy trying to do his job in the best way possible — focused, professional, driven. The film represented an early indication of just how much real potential Farrell possessed.
4. The Lobster
Here was the first sign that Yorgos Lanthimos had cracked the code on Colin Farrell. The actor has always had a sense of melancholy about him — it’s what makes him a compelling romantic lead in films like In Bruges, Miami Vice, and The New World. But by leaning into that sense of woeful desperation, Lanthimos turns Farrell into a wonderfully deadpan comic force, which just happens to be perfect for this highly allegorical comedy-drama about a world in which people are transformed into animals unless they can find romantic partners within a set period of time. Who thought Farrell could have been such a minimalist? He seems to do so little on the surface, and yet this is such a sad and funny performance, one of the most complex he’s ever delivered.
3. The New World
As Captain John Smith, the rebellious explorer who winds up falling for Q’orianka Kilcher’s Pocahontas in Terrence Malick’s divisive romantic epic, Farrell is the very picture of soulful, conflicted charm. As an onscreen performance, it’s almost a silent one — not just because the actor has relatively little actual dialogue, but also because the director asks him to do so much with just his glances, gestures, and bearing, even when he does speak. Meanwhile, we hear him plenty, mostly in those inescapable Malickian voice-overs — corny and poetic in equal measure, filled with longing and searching. Here’s the thing: With his sensuous murmur of a voice, Colin Farrell is kind of perfect for this kind of thing. And he brings fascinating layers to Smith’s character. Because ultimately, he’s revealed to be unworthy of Pocahontas’s love, proving himself to be weak, unsteady, and too unmoored. (She winds up with Christian Bale, who seems like an entirely more stable fellow, at least for the purposes of this version of the story.)
2. Miami Vice
“I’m a fiend for mojitos.” It is not every actor who can deliver that line compellingly without actually losing any of its inherent ridiculousness. Michael Mann’s feature film version of his iconic, much-imitated 1980s TV show was not a hit — critically or financially — but it’s slowly become accepted as something of a masterpiece. (Sort of. There are still plenty of people who would disagree violently with that statement. I will no doubt be hearing from them soon.) But this is phenomenal casting. Farrell’s Sonny Crockett is a brooding, messy, temperamental cop whose impulsiveness and (ahem) intensity is balanced by his mopey vulnerability. When he falls for cartel lawyer Gong Li, all those elements come into play: It’s a quest for danger and a quest for connection. Their onscreen chemistry is incredible, even as it seems so unlikely. Powered by Mann’s abstract stylization, the whole movie plays like a fever dream, and Farrell’s presence is an integral part of the effect.
1. In Bruges
You know what it is? It’s the sheer befuddlement in those eyes and that voice. That’s the ingredient that makes this Farrell’s greatest role to date. As the younger and brasher of two hit men hiding out in Bruges, Belgium, he brings some of the same elements he’s often been known for: a vague sense of regret mixed with violent brashness, rakish charm mixed with low-key menace. But Martin McDonagh’s masterful comedy starts off like a drama, then becomes a romance, then a thriller, before revealing itself to have been an existential morality tale all along. And Farrell’s performance changes constantly, caught in the competing energies of the story. What anchors it all, however, is that running sense of disbelief and bewilderment: First, he can’t believe the situation in which he’s found himself. Then, he can’t believe what he’s seeing happening around him. Until finally, he is baffled by the very mystery of life, love, and death.