From Calm to Carnal: Looking at Cillian Murphy in the Horror Genre

Cillian Murphy plays the lead character in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. An amazing actor in a movie that Nolan himself called “kind of a horror movie“? We’ll take it.

So, in that spirit we thought we’d take a stroll through the Peaky Blinders actor’s resume in both the thriller and horror genres. Hell, the last time Nolan and Murphy worked together they created one of the best horror aspects of The Dark Knight trilogy with the Scarecrow character!

Let’s take a look through Cillian Murphy’s career in the horror/thriller genres…

28 Days Later (2002)

For many of us, 28 Days Later was our introduction to Cillian Murphy. Our full frontal introduction to Cillian Murphy. The camera pans down on a naked man in a hospital bed who wakes up (after presumably being hit by a car) to absolute nothingness. Everything and almost everyone has been wiped out by a plague that turns its victims into rage fueled maniac zombies. Then we watch him navigate this new hellscape of a world that is his sudden reality.

A theme you’ll notice as we go forth with Cillian Murphy’s horror career is the dichotomy of his characters. Many of them start out meek, unintimidating, thoughtful and calm. By film’s end however, they may be maniacal, terrifying or just plain desperate characters with violently emotional outbursts. None better than 28 Days Later where we watch a man come to grips with the death of his parents and the entire world. Yet, manages somehow to keep his composure, grace and empathy for the humans around him. By the third act however, we’ll see Jim’s madness understandably devolve into him running through hallways like a kid on Christmas in Hell. Shirtless, covered in blood and laughing gleefully while murdering soldiers.

The amazing and personal performance Murphy put together in 28 Days Later instantly had me thinking “This is a guy who really stands out. I’m going to follow and see what he does.”

So, let’s see what he did from there…

Red Eye (2005)

In one of horror master Wes Craven’s most underrated movies, Cillian Murphy gives yet another underrated performance as Jackson Rippner; a political hitman who desperately needs a political figure to switch hotel rooms so they can carry out a hit on him and his family. So, he decides to trap the hotel Manager Lisa (Rachel McAdams) on a public flight and blackmail her – with the threat of the murder of her Father (Brian Cox) – to call and have his room switched to the one they can shoot a grenade launcher into.

The beauty of Cillian Murphy in Red Eye is the duality of the roles he gets to play. He first charms Lisa with conversation at the airport. He talks her into having a few friendly drinks and gets to know things about her. Things he’ll later use to toy with her emotions. It’s strange because you can definitely tell there is something sinister beneath the surface but he’s just being so damn nice that you can’t put a finger on it. Once on the airplane you can see Lisa start to become fond of him and put her guard down. Which makes it all the more demeaning and uncomfortable when he flips the switch. Suddenly he drops the act all at once in a very Edward Norton in Primal Fear-esque type moment.

Watching his character have to put on and take off the nice guy mask over and over again any time a stewardess or flight member intrudes on them is as fascinating as the main plot itself. When the frustration mounts and his mask of sanity is about to slip, the character adds yet another layer. Eventually, we basically get to watch him play a version of Scream’s Ghostface; in a full frenzy, chasing Lisa around a suburban home with a hole in his windpipe. Murphy goes from romcom lead, to Hans Gruber, to Patrick Bateman all in the span of an 85 minute thriller.

Sunshine (2007)

Cillian Murphy horror sunshine

Another movie that isn’t horror in its purest form. Sure. But don’t tell me being trapped in a spaceship with a lack of oxygen and the fate of the world on your shoulders while a dude who’s been dipped in the literal sun is chasing you like Michael Myers on meth isn’t scary.

In Director Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, Cillian Murphy plays a Physicist named Robert Capa aboard a spaceship called Icarus II; the earth’s last hope to save a dying sun by dropping a huge bomb inside of it to re-ignite it. After everything that can go wrong does, Boyle decides he too wants to fly too close to the sun (spoiler incoming). The movie takes a jarring genre pivot into slasher territory when a character named Pinbacker (Mark Strong), previously thought to be dead, shows up dropping bodies and chasing Capa around the spaceship. Some will call this twist too much but count me as one of those who found it to be the most exhilarating part of the film.

Sunshine is yet another movie in Murphy’s filmography where you experience the film through his eyes. At first he’s calm, calculated and peaceful amidst a crew of heightened personalities. By the end however, he’s absolutely manic. The movie isn’t just telling us “Hey, this situation really, really sucks!” We can tell because the dude who was calm as a cucumber dangling off the side of a spaceship five minutes ago is now screaming bloody murder and losing his goddamn mind. It’s pure versatility on the part of Cillian Murphy that gets the movie where it needs to go.

Retreat (2011)

Cillian Murphy horror retreat

Retreat is a film I’m shocked I had never even heard of until now (it’s streaming for free on Crackle currently). Not expecting much, I found an original thriller with some interesting twists that touched on multiple horror sub genres. In the film, Martin (Murphy) and his wife Kate (Thandiwe Newton) head to a remote island to try and rekindle their relationship after a tragedy. An island so remote that the Airbnb host has to take a long ass boat ride to get to you if anything goes wrong. Suddenly a stranger named Jack (Jamie Bell) shows up with a head wound. They take him in and he informs them that back on the mainland a horrible virus has broken out. Immediate contact with anyone will result in almost instant and painful death. They must board up the entire house and live in this post apocalyptic world together, fending off anyone who comes near.

The problem is Jack is extremely sketchy and they have no way to confirm if anything he’s saying is true. First polite, he’s now ordering the couple around and making suggestive comments towards Kate. He’s very quickly put them in a horrifying situation whether he’s telling the truth or not. Meanwhile, their relationship issues start to surface under the stress of it all and throw emotional fuel on the fire like some sort of hellish version of MTV’s Real World.

While Retreat definitely has some elements of movies like They Come at Night or 10 Cloverfield Lane, it most reminds me of 1971’s Straw Dogs. Cillian Murphy’s Martin is very much like Dustin Hoffman’s in that he’s a passive man in the face of an intrusive and physically superior one. He decides to try to use his brain over violence. His wife quickly loses patience as he seemingly allows this stranger to take control of their lives.

Murphy, ever the good sport, lets Martin take a judgmental beating from both his wife and the audience for his meek response before everything hits a head and multiple truths are revealed. I’m sensing a major theme here that Cillian Murphy goes into these roles with absolutely no ego. In turn, his character journeys feel earned and honest. Retreat is no different.

Red Lights (2012)

Cillian Murphy horror red lights

Red Lights is weird. Listen to this plot synopsis and tell me it doesn’t sound like the coolest movie ever.

Robert DeNiro plays Simon Silver, a world famous travelling psychic healer. Think Steve Martin in Leap of Faith but with a dark, cold, paranormal twist and the narcissistic personality of your standard cult leader. Sigourney Weaver plays a noted scientific skeptic of all things paranormal who pairs up with Cillian Murphy’s character (a physicist) to form whatever the opposite of the Ghostbusters would be called. Some days they go to folks’ homes who believe they are haunted and catch them lying or disprove their paranormal worries with plausible explanations. Other days they work with the police to catch false prophets and fake healers in the act. Eventually their paths cross with Silver and Cillian Murphy’s character believes he is being psychologically and telepathically stalked by him.

That cast (which also features Elizabeth Olsen) and that plot sounds beyond amazing! For many, it apparently sounded too amazing as the end product was ultimately underwhelming for many viewers and critics. For better or worse, Rodrigo Cortes’ (BuriedRed Lights is one of the oddest movies I’ve ever seen. Extremely over the top in terms of drama and each of the actors (specifically Murphy and Weaver) really go for it in terms of chewing the scenery and letting their emotions burst at the seams. The narrative is a little hard to follow and the plot has a solid case of the ole’ ADHD. One minute you’re watching a stylish and earnest deep dive into skepticism of the paranormal and the next a pulpy thriller where dead birds keep hitting windows and characters are being jump scared by the homeless. It feels a little like one of those 2000’s Dimension films where the Weinsteins would demand sensationalist reshoots featuring more action and death.

Personally, I find Red Lights to be a deeply flawed yet one of a kind and weird little movie with some wild performances by a fascinating cast. Specifically, Cillian Murphy who lets it all hang out here like an emo kid in a Taking Back Sunday mosh pit after the worst week of his life and two Red Bulls. I love it. But it’s an acquired taste.

A Quiet Place Part II (2020)

Cillian Murphy horror movies

Cillian Murphy clearly knows how to pick interesting characters with multiple layers and is certainly not afraid to be disliked. This may be the exact reason why we’re always happy to see him in a film yet have no idea what the part will entail. Will we hate the character? Just how fucked up is he going to be? Part of his job as Emmett for at least half A Quiet Place Part II is to be the opposite of the man Lee Abbott (John Krasinski) was. You know, the sweet and charismatic guy we just watched sacrifice himself to be brutally ripped apart to save his small children? The exact type of role that many leading men would be reluctant to play. Murphy once again sniffed out something fascinating about the character and A Quiet Place Part II was all the better for it.

When the family stumbles across Emmet’s industrial-like shelter they find him to be a broken man. He lost his children the day of the attack and his wife to sickness just weeks ago. He’s not a great host when they show up. As a matter of fact he’s what you’d call a “total dick.” But a subtle script and a communicative performance from Murphy will have you understanding quite quickly that he simply blames himself for not being able to save his own family. So, when the Abbotts show up he completely shuts down at the thought of being responsible for their safety. He doesn’t want to let them down too. It’s a performance that without emotional nuance would just be some asshole screaming “I ain’t got enough food for you now get out!” to a woman, her newborn baby and two kids. Instead, Murphy overcomes all this to create a complicated and imperfect but emotionally intelligent character the audience can empathize with.

Watching his character redeem himself by succeeding in helping others where he could not help his own family becomes the most necessary element in making A Quiet Place Part II not just feel like an “in between” film. Plus, he looks really handsome with a post-apocalyptic beard. Good for him.

Thanks for reading and here’s hoping Oppenheimer puts yet another feather in Cillian Murphy’s horror hat. Speaking of hats and finger knives… he’d make a pretty solid Freddy Krueger if I may say so myself. Just sayin’. Who knows. Maybe it’ll happen someday.

The post From Calm to Carnal: Looking at Cillian Murphy in the Horror Genre appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.