Once upon a time, it seemed like Colin Farrell was primed to be Hollywood’s Next Big Thing.
Springing onto the Hollywood scene in the early 2000s, Farrell impressed in Joel Shumacher’s Tigerland, a wartime drama following young recruits undergoing training for the Vietnam War. Aged just 24, it was his first taste of success. His early career was defined largely by macho action roles – projects like Minority Report, The Recruit, Daredevil, and S.W.A.T. didn’t exactly distinguish his acting credentials, but they certainly put him on the map. For a few years, he seemed set to comfortably inhabit the unchallenging role of Hollywood Bad Boy.
That is, until we come to the great Macedonian elephant in the room.
Following in the sandaled footsteps of Gladiator and Troy, on paper Alexander should have been a surefire hit. Helmed by an Academy Award-winning director, boasting an all-star cast including Angelina Jolie and Anthony Hopkins, and buoyed by a sizeable budget, it seemed poised to conquer the box office – until the critics saw it. The film was mauled upon its release. Reviews seized on everything from historical inaccuracies and histrionic acting, to Alexander’s blonde tresses (or, “my Doris Day look”, as Farrell noted in a 2015 interview with Graham Norton). Though faring a little better in Europe, the historical epic was an epic bomb in America, just about scraping back its $155 million budget and earning six Razzie nominations in the process. “It has wonderful highlights,” said Oliver Stone, paraphrasing some of the film’s nastier reviews, “but most of them are in Colin Farrell’s hair.”
Alexander proved to be something of a watershed moment in Farrell’s career. The fallout was so demoralising it almost encouraged him to quit acting for good. After Miami Vice (another expensive, poorly-received box office disappointment) and a stint in rehab, it’d be another two years before Farrell finally found the role to set him on a different path – In Bruges. Amazingly, Farrell was initially reluctant to accept the role of disgraced hitman Ray in Martin McDonagh’s frantic, foul-mouthed black comedy. Confidence still well and truly shattered after Alexander, Farrell feared his presence would tarnish the film, and he discouraged McDonagh from casting him. Thankfully McDonagh disregarded these anxieties, allowing Farrell to turn in a career-best performance as the petulant Ray. Following two bickering hitmen (Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) as they hide out in Bruges after a botched job, the film deftly balances dark comedy and tragic pathos, offering a welcome chance for Farrell to prove he was more than just a handsome tabloid fixture.
Finally free from the restrictive parameters of Hollywood Leading Man, Farrell’s filmography from 2008 onwards is comprised mostly of smaller films or ensemble pieces. It marked a conscious move away from Movie Star towards Actor. It wouldn’t feel quite right to call this career recalibration a “comeback” in the vein of Matthew McConaughey or Michael Keaton, but it was a reboot of sorts. Throwing off the shackles of Bad Boy Heartthrob, Farrell at last had the chance to really branch out.
Between 2008 and 2014, Farrell continued to take small, often weird roles. Crass comedy Horrible Bosses or campy horror remake Fright Night didn’t set the world alight, but they certainly showed a kind of playful willingness to try something new – a willingness probably nurtured by those past blockbuster failures. It’s difficult to imagine a pre-Alexander Farrell third-billed and singing as country star Tommy Sweet in Crazy Heart, or as a lonely fisherman in Neil Jordan’s understated romantic drama Ondine. The latter is particularly impressive, a small, unshowy role that doesn’t command attention. Wrangling a County Cork accent, Farrell plays Syracuse, a local fisherman who rescues a mysterious woman from the sea when she gets caught in his nets. His young daughter Annie suggests the woman, Ondine, is a Selkie. It’s a beautiful low-key drama that perfectly showcases Farrell’s talents in a subtle, subdued way.
In this vein, some of Farrell’s best work has been in his micro-budget collaborations with Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos. In 2015, Farrell surprised audiences with a delightfully weird turn in Lanthimos’ dystopian English-language debut, The Lobster. Almost unrecognisable as the paunchy and mustachioed David, Farrell gained 45 pounds to play the role. Using this remarkable physical transformation whilst never relying wholly on it to convey the character, the result is a deadpan and often hilarious performance unlike anything else in his career. Their followup collaboration, the disturbing The Killing of a Sacred Deer, was another hit with critics, proving again that, given the right projects, Farrell can excel.
Of course, it hasn’t all been plain sailing. There’s still the odd blip here and there – an inevitable Harry Potter appearance, the dull Total Recall remake, or bizarre fantasy A New York Winter’s Tale show that Farrell hasn’t quite lost his talent for picking the occasional bit of rubbish. But a lot’s changed since the early days. Turkeys like Daredevil, Alexander, and Miami Vice allowed Farrell to showcase his talent in lower-budget gems, banking enough brilliant performances over the last 10 years to prove his career hasn’t simply been a fluke.
Most recently appearing as slimey alderman Jack Mulligan in Steve McQueen’s Widows, Farrell is set to shake things up again in Disney’s glossy new version of Dumbo. It may be a bit of a risk – historically, big-budget fare hasn’t always been kind to Farrell – but early reviews are positive, and in 2019 Colin Farrell can be confident that he has little left to prove.