In Time is all about a whole Bonnie-and-Clyde-style crime wave — but the actual movie gets stolen by a member of the supporting cast, Cillian Murphy. The star of Sunshine and 28 Days Later is so much better than everybody else in that cast, it’s almost embarrassing. You walk out of In Time shaking your head and going, “Cillian Murphy. He’s an actor.”
And after watching In Time, we were left thinking — what movie hasn’t Cillian Murphy boosted to greatness? Okay, fine... Red Eye. But other than that, he’s pretty much rocked out in some tough, and diverse, roles. Here’s why we love him.
He plays a great innocent protagonist. For most of us, Murphy really came on our radar in 28 Days Later, where he has to be the audience identification figure in a world that’s totally gone nuts. Cillian Murphy’s eyes are ginormous, like the transplanted corneas of a giant ancient kraken from the depths of the ocean, and he has the lips of a dozen Mick Jaggers, smooshed together. And he deploys all of this in the service of looking totally gobsmacked by the fact that civilization has fallen while he was having a nap. You totally believe in the “rage virus” holocaust as seen through Cillian Murphy’s panoramic eyes.
And then there’s Sunshine, also from director Danny Boyle — in which Murphy not only has to be a viewpoint character, he also has to be totally sincere and solemn about the fact that the sun is dying and he’s going to reignite it with a flying nuclear bomb. A lot of the movie’s faith in humanity’s ability to save itself is channeled through Murphy’s massive unblinking doe eyes, and we get humongous close-ups of his staring eyes with the sun or other stuff reflected in them. And it’s up to Murphy to sell us on the film’s hairpin transition between “space adventure” and “slasher film,” by totally buying into it himself.
If all Cillian Murphy ever did was play a wide-eyed, totally sweet good guy, then we’d still love him. But that’s not all!
He also makes a totally bitchin’ bad guy. He’s pretty great as an utterly disturbed and destructive Jonathan Crane, aka Scarecrow, in Batman Begins. He manages to keep the whole “the Bat-Man” speech theatrical and over-the-top without sliding all the way into full-on camp land. He takes the same perfect eyes and big mouth, and turns them into tools of chaos and mockery. Before Heath Ledger took his pretty-boy image and distorted it into a scary, warped Bat-villain, Cillian went there first, with his creepy sackcloth mask and weird voice.
Murphy was also one of the best things in Tron Legacy, and the notion that he was stuck in there in a cameo as Ed Dillinger Jr., so he could be a major villain later on, is one of the main reasons a sequel doesn’t sound like an entirely horrible idea. The brief glimpses of Murphy’s corporate whizkid villain were one of the saving graces of the Tron relaunch.
And then there’s In Time, where Murphy’s is the most complex, interesting character in the film — and he’s also really fun to watch. He pretty much saves the movie single-handed. And finally...
He kept Inception from falling totally flat. Honestly, Murphy has the hardest role in Inception — the whole movie is about a gang of wily dream thieves trying to give Murphy a kind of catharsis. And Murphy has to sell us, the audience, on the notion that he’s experiencing that catharsis, in the middle of a giant action sequence involving exploding ski guards and crashing vans and Edith Piaf disintegrating and stuff. It’s all up to Murphy to make the emotional “I’m resolving my daddy issues” thing click, and not seem like Murphy’s character is kind of a simpleton. Or overplaying it. The whole giant house of exploding cards rests on Murphy’s tearful wide eyes as he sits by that hospital bed, and his parted, ginormous lips. And he totally supports it.
Really the fact that Inception doesn’t feel like a giant letdown is reason enough to worship the Irish man with the uncanny anime features.
Update, 11:11 a.m., May 6, 2020: This post has been updated to remove a video that is no longer available.