Tom McCarthy is known for many things: he’s a critically well-liked writer-director whose most recent film, Spotlight, is garnering accolades around the world. He’s a very recognisable “That guy!” actor who pops up in a lot of popular projects; and, of course, he shares a name with a respected British author. What he’s not known for, of course… is really any of these things. Not on a big popular level. No one seems to know who Tom McCarthy is. Let’s put that right. Let’s – ahem – shine a spotlight on Tom McCarthy.
A graduate of the Yale School of Drama, McCarthy spent years plying his wares as an actor on stage and screen. He played Dr. Bob in Meet the Parents, had one-episode roles in the likes of Spin City, Law and Order and Ally McBeal, and even worked his way up to a brief starring role in Boston Public. Such work, ultimately, has proved a great boon to American cinema: while far from making the guy a millionaire, it gave him the relative financial safety to jack it all in and shoot a shoestring film of his own device.
McCarthy’s first feature as both a writer and director was 2003’s The Station Agent, which won over critics at Sundance before heading out into the world and winning hearts, minds, several awards and more than nine times its budget in box-office receipts. In what would become a classic bind for McCarthy, however, all this acclaim did little for his own reputation with those bigwigs voting for those Oscars: he won two major Sundance awards, two Independent Spirit Awards and a BAFTA – not just any namby-pamby BAFTA either, but a major one, for Best Original Screenplay. So too did his cast fail to register with the Academy despite three SAG Award nominations. This, folks, is the basic story of McCarthy’s first three features.
The Station Agent, of course, absolutely deserved every single accolade it garnered. The plot is a simple one, the story meandering around and pretending not to be reaching a point. Fin (Peter Dinklage) is a railroad enthusiast and toy train repairer who inherits a small, abandoned train depot. He is quiet and misanthropic, deeply withdrawn; interestingly, and to its great credit, we can never quite figure out if he is withdrawn because of issues arising from his dwarfism or because he’s simply a grouch. Nevertheless, his quiet and reserved interactions with the other characters – Bobby Cannavale’s friendly, talkative food-van owner, Patricia Clarkson’s depressive artist and Michelle Williams’ entrapped librarian – provide subtle hints of character in a style wholly at ease with its own natural pacing. This has been labelled by some as a ‘quirky’ drama, possibly because it is otherwise difficult to categorise a low-budget film about outsiders. McCarthy refuses, however, to beat his audience over the head with his film’s relative eccentricity and instead delivers what is almost a treatise on the nature of human interaction in cinema. Sometimes they talk, sometimes they don’t; sometimes they reveal things, sometimes they don’t; and sometimes, they may not even bother enacting the grand enlightenments we expect from them. The Station Agent is all about character, and becomes so through rejecting the whole concept of the cinematic ‘character’.
McCarthy’s second feature was 2007’s The Visitor, which earned him his second Writers Guild of America nomination and catapulted Richard Jenkins to a Best Actor Oscar nomination. One of the decade’s best films, The Visitor follows another crotchety protagonist – widowed professor Walter Vale – who returns to his ignored apartment in New York City to find an immigrant couple have taken up there, conned into doing so by an opportunist who claimed it was his. The funny thing is, McCarthy draws out the tension of the characters’ first meeting by leaving little doubts in our minds as to the veracity of Tarek and Zainab’s story: maybe they’re lying, maybe they’re shifty, maybe they’re going to beat Walter up in the middle of the night and take his things. The film hints briefly at a different plot altogether, some sort of cramped psychological drama.
Of course, Walter’s new tenants are in fact wonderful, warm people who’ve been genuinely tricked – and so he lets them stay, at least for a while. He does have, after all, some kindness. Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) catches onto this rather quickly and introduces Walter to the djembe, and to multicultural communal fun. He brings him out of his shell and- hold on. What is this ridiculous Driving Miss Daisy narrative? What on earth was McCarthy thinking?
Don’t be fooled, though: much like the deft dispersion of somewhat xenophobic tension at the beginning, McCarthy’s plot beats throughout seem to move towards melodrama and triteness before pulling the rug out and instead responding to and deconstructing those groansome notions of important messages and, crucially, white-saviour narratives. There are, as McCarthy painstakingly shows, a universe of complexities to this problematic perspective. Halfway through, Tarek is wrongfully arrested by bullish cops and imprisoned in an immigration detention centre; by the end, despite Walter’s best efforts, Tarek has simply been disappeared from the country. We don’t even get a proper goodbye. All we are left with is a hole representing the disparity between well-meaning liberal people (the kind seen all over the movies) and the political and social realities that prevent things being tied up in a neat little bow. Hope only remains in The Visitor because McCarthy allows us to understand that an emotional connection has been forged between these nominally different people, and because he treats the subject matter not with the silly didacticism of other ‘accepting differences’ films – where the idea of understanding others is depicted like the filmmakers’ grand fucking epiphany – but with a graceful simplicity that shows such concepts are, really, an obvious fact of life, something that we shouldn’t have to be lectured on. The above trailer does its best to paint the film as part of a certain hokey tradition; this only serves to underline how brilliantly Tom McCarthy engages with the given set of tropes.
As with The Station Agent, McCarthy chose actors who were less than well-known. With The Visitor, Richard Jenkins’ profile shot right up and allowed him to move from under-noticed character work to major supporting roles, his name prominently on posters everywhere; this after Dawson’s Creek star Michelle Williams was given her first big feature showcase in The Station Agent and subsequently became an indie drama icon and one of the best film actresses of her generation. McCarthy’s ability to spot rising stars and potential breakouts is no doubt connected to his own side-profession, as throughout this period his own roles became more high-profile and in conjunction with his critical successes allowed ever-bigger projects to fall into his lap. McCarthy’s acting credits by the late 2000s included Good Night, and Good Luck, Syriana, Flags of Our Fathers and, in 2009, a major role in Roland Emmerich’s 2012, as the heroic amateur-pilot rival to John Cusack’s hangdog protagonist.
The same year saw Tom McCarthy cash another big paycheck by finally contributing writing duties for another director; as a credited storywriter for Up, he won his first Oscar nomination. Pete Docter, while playing around with the idea, decided he enjoyed The Station Agent so much that there was only one thing to do: get the writer on board, to develop a plotline and work through that central theme of an unconventional family slowly coming together. According to Slashfilm, McCarthy’s most prominent remaining stamp is, surprisingly, the character of Russell – a delightful indication of the auteur’s taste for chalk-and-cheese dynamics.
Perhaps McCarthy’s strangest work yet, though, is the pilot episode of Game of Thrones: the hour-long episode was filmed in late 2009, screened for HBO executives (and showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss) to see what was working, and then partially recast and substantially reshot to create the series proper. McCarthy’s surviving work on the pilot includes a few key scenes between the main characters, as well as casting the show’s biggest breakout star – old friend Dinklage. Either way, this does seem on the surface another interesting anomaly in McCarthy’s artistic career. Game of Thrones was not reshot because he’d done a terrible job – almost all of his casting was retained, for instance, from Sean Bean to Alfie Allen – but because, as with all shows when the pilot’s been deemed half-decent, the actual product needs to be of a piece with the resultant series. McCarthy’s footage, where used, is noticeable because it was shot on 35mm film instead of the digital camerawork seen everywhere else on the show. So the bloody, bruising, controversial Game of Thrones is, simply put, indebted to a director of excessively quiet, studious human dramas. Surely, on the HBO roster, McCarthy would be more suited to something like Treme, or Luck, or even Mike White’s half-tender half-vicious Enlightened?
But of course, this does both McCarthy and GoT a great disservice, and in fact confirms what the director’s all about. At its start, the Game of Thrones series was more political intrigue than anything else, back when the White Walkers hadn’t quite risen, the massive monarchic dispute hadn’t exploded into existence and all the important stuff was, well, a game of thrones – rather than the epic storm of swords that’s been building since. The source novels are founded on their dedication to different and opposing perspectives, giving equal weight to a number of clashing factions looking to claim the throne of Westeros. In the show’s pilot, we see nominal hero Ned Stark somberly executing an unfortunate Night’s Watch ranger who rather understandably abandoned his post after fleeing a horde of freakin’ snow zombies. In true McCarthy style, we get both sides of the story.
Since then, the personal projects have continued: 2011 saw the release of Win Win, with easily McCarthy’s starriest cast at that point: Paul Giamatti at the top, with the recognisable faces of Jeffrey Tambor, Amy Ryan and Melanie Lynskey providing backup. A certain lineage was present, though: Bobby Cannavale returned for another wonderfully-embodied best friend role after Station Agent; Giamatti slotted into the family of great McCarthy central turns, giving another performance worthy of the rubric ‘career-best’; meanwhile total newcomer Alex Shaffer, as essentially co-lead, not only held his own but proved that one of McCarthy’s greatest strengths (a rare one) is in discovering and boosting untapped talents.
The film itself focuses on a lawyer, Mike, who moonlights as a wrestling coach. When an aging client is assigned to Mike’s care for a $1500-a-month stipend, our hero puts him in a care home. The arrival of the client’s grandson (Shaffer) is what gets everything rolling in classic McCarthy fashion: he is troubled, his mother (Lynskey) more so, and as Mike starts to feel the ramifications of his continued insensitivity he becomes inadvertently drawn into helping everyone out. It is by far the most traditional (or at least most Sundance-y) of McCarthy’s films, though is well worth a watch for the way the director’s usual themes and stylistic tics can work within the milieu of a relatively rote family drama.
In the years between Win Win and Spotlight, McCarthy veered dangerously close to toppling off his pedestal altogether and into a horrible limbo of gentle hokey-ness. He scripted the duds Million Dollar Arm (for Disney) and the Adam Sandler-starring The Cobbler, also directing the latter. And in light of how middle-America Win Win was, this diversion into sanctimonious drivel seemed less like a blip and more a natural downslide. For some McCarthy fans, even Spotlight looked, before it came out, like it could fall into the same sort of category.
Thank god it didn’t.
Though The Cobbler briefly seemed to prove that McCarthy’s concerns had become too twee (the film has a bizarre knack for hinting at incredibly dark situations while trying to maintain its magical-realist vibe), Spotlight shows that there remains, at the heart of the man’s work, a savage bite and a deeply sympathetic humanism – the one thing, in fact, that is present in The Cobbler. Co-written with The West Wing‘s Josh Singer, Spotlight is in many ways kindred to McCarthy’s best role as an actor: the hysterically shifty, completely unscrupulous reporter Scott Templeton in The Wire (come on, you really thought that one wasn’t gonna be mentioned?). The film is, like The Visitor, a deeply sad and angry examination of a major social issue, through the eyes of people who haven’t yet had the opportunity to comprehend it. There is again a profound disparity between the protagonists, who are simply a group of journalists, and the victims they seek to report on; though some critics have accused McCarthy and Singer of a misplaced focus, of essentially backgrounding the real story in favour of heroic media-types, it remains clear throughout that this is the writers’ point: the unknowability of certain horrors in the eyes of others is a deep-set part of the problem, and working to understand these things is the key to significant change.
The point is, unlike so many great auteurs, McCarthy does not tackle big themes head on. Think of those great filmographic explorations of love, power, violence, family, art – McCarthy subsumes these to the background, reversing the usual thematic status quo and reflecting a reality where these concerns are merely parts of a jigsaw adding up to personal experience, rather than the other way around. Many other filmmakers will use their characters as in a novel, where each stands as a symbol building up to a grand statement; Tom McCarthy’s films start with the characters, explore what makes them tick, and will occasionally place something beneath the dialogue alluding to things like prejudice, politics, familial disharmony. Tom McCarthy, a warm, emotional, intelligent and immensely humanist auteur, has been slowly breaking out into the spotlight for years; now he’s arrived, let’s hope he stays there.