Few actors in the past two decades have seen a trajectory shift as dramatic as Clive Owen. One of the breakout stars of the early 21st Century, Owen was a frequent subject of critical acclaim, and his charismatic personality led to many discussions about his candidacy to take over the role of James Bond after Pierce Brosnan. Yet by the early 2010s, Owen’s superstardom had faded thanks to a few notable bombs, and he began to lean more towards smaller projects. His most notable work of the past decade has been Stephen Soderbergh’s The Knick, a critically acclaimed series that inspired a niche fandom but suffered from a bungled release due to the brand confusion regarding its network Cinemax.
2021 may be the year where Owen’s career sees a turnaround. Currently he’s appearing in the Apple TV+ adaptation of Stephen King’s Lisey’s Story, and later this year he’ll star as former U.S. President Bill Clinton in the latest season of American Crime Story, which will almost certainly provoke some conversation as it tackles Clinton’s controversial 1998 impeachment.
Although most of Owen’s best work comes from a relatively concentrated period, he’s shown considerable range and has rarely appeared in projects that weren’t interesting or didn’t come from impressive filmmakers. Narrowing down his best work was surprisingly challenging, as he’s shown many sides of his personality within roles that exemplify different strengths. Here are seven of his most essential performances that are worth rewatching or catching for the first time.
7. The Professor, The Bourne Identity
The first installment in the Bourne franchise is a perfect example of how Owen took a seemingly standard role and made it wholly unique and memorable. The ruthless assassin known as “The Professor” is a standard spy movie bad guy – a cold, calculated killer who is tasked with assassinating Matt Damon’s titular character and faces off against the amnesiac secret agent during a critical faceoff in Paris. The Professor’s presence serves mostly as a ticking clock, and his death is more important in how it establishes the ease in which Bourne can administer lethal force than it is a tragic moment.
Yet, that brief death sequence carries much more weight than it ever should. After a thrilling chase in which both Damon and Owen push themselves to their physical limits, The Professor becomes oddly reflective in his final moments as he reveals to Bourne their shared connection. He’s only now aware of how his humanity has been stripped, and it serves as a dark mirror to what Bourne could become. Owen’s brilliant performance makes the moment more memorable than it would’ve been otherwise, a great example of an actor elevating the material.
6. Dwight McCarthy, Sin City
Although it’s inspired countless tired retreads and imitators since its release, 2005’s Sin City was a striking deviation from other graphic novel adaptations at the time thanks to its highly stylized take on the source material. While the visual boldness gave Sin City its pop, the film captivated audiences with an epic noir crime story told across several interconnected narratives featuring an impressive ensemble of memorable performances. Owen managed to stand out within the eclectic batch of storylines as Dwight McCarthy, a no-nonsense hard case who gets caught up in an encounter with a violent ex-boyfriend of his girlfriend Shellie (Brittany Murphy) that quickly spirals out of control.
Although Frank Miller has written an innumerable amount of grim, humorless anti-heroes, McCarthy is unique in how he must be totally closed off from normal interaction thanks to his predisposition towards violence. McCarthy’s plight begins as sympathetic, as he attempts to deliver street justice to a bunch of thugs harassing Shellie. But his story becomes more complex as his methods become more vicious and extreme. At the height of his fame, Owen was able to disappear within the sociopathic character and add surreal dark humor to the violent exchanges. When Josh Brolin took over the role in 2014’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, it wasn’t nearly as effective.
5. Robert Parks, Gosford Park
Robert Altman’s absurdly entertaining whodunit isn’t just a brilliant satire of the ridiculous nature of the British upper class, but also one of the great ensemble pieces of the 2000s. It’s a film that features many bold performances, and the complexities of Julian Fellowes’ Academy-Award winning screenplay may take multiple viewings in order to completely absorb. In a film with so much witty dialogue flying around, it would be easy for the emotional impact to become lost. Thankfully the romantic subplot featuring Owen’s Robert Parks pinpoints the film’s message about high society’s disregard for the innocent.
Robert is revealed to have a damning connection to one of the evening’s guests, giving him an understandable motive for revenge that feeds into the film’s central mystery. Robert can disappear within the clout of the other party guests thanks to his familiarity with their tendencies, and as an actor Owen delivers a restrained performance as a man who has accepted his heritage, if not entirely moved past it. His romantic scenes with Mary (Kelly Macdonald) provide a touching footnote to what becomes a rather melancholy meditation on the nature of economic inequality.
4. Dalton Russell, Inside Man
Inside Man is deceptively one of Spike Lee’s most dynamic films, even though it was initially regarded by some critics as a departure for the acclaimed filmmaker. The seemingly straightforward bank heist thriller navigates between two wildly different visual styles; shot in a frantic cinema verité style during the sequences from the perspective of Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington), the camerawork grows steady and in command when robbery mastermind Dalton Russell (Owen) centers the frame. The film plays out like a thrilling update of Dog Day Afternoon for the era of the 24-hour news cycle, building suspense as its two stars engage in a mental game of cat and mouse.
Owen gives another restrained performance as Dalton, a man able to disrupt and dismantle through his strict and precise commands. It isn’t easy to find an actor who can believably ruffle Denzel’s feathers, but Owen never sounds like he’s making a threat that he can’t back up. Inside Man is one of Lee’s most popcorn movies, but it never suffers from a lack of realism thanks to the authenticity that Washington and Owen bring.
3. Jack Manfred, Croupier
Owen’s breakout role is also one of his more underrated films, but Croupier is more than just an acting showcase. This brilliant modern take on neo-noir mysteries follows Jack Manfred, a struggling novelist whose new job as a croupier (basically a casino dealer) draws him into the dangerous and addictive gambling world.
Manfred narrates his current endeavors through monologues intended to fill up the pages of one of his upcoming books, and the end result feels reminiscent of classic hard-boiled mysteries like The Maltese Falcon. However, it’s no parody, and Jack’s growing obsessions with conning the frequent gamblers and exacting his revenge becomes deeply unsettling thanks to Owen’s signature coldness. The only bright spot in Jack’s miserable life comes from brief phone conversations with his father, and that relationship is paid off brilliantly in Owen’s final monologue that closes the film with a heartbreaking personal touch.
2. Larry Gray, Closer
One of the last films from the great Mike Nichols, Closer is both outrageously entertaining and painfully perceptive at the same time. Based on the play by Patrick Marber, the film explores four intersecting relationships between various London inhabitants who have the vague perception that they’re “intellectual.” Romances grow and splinter between Larry (Owen), Alice (Natalie Portman), Dan (Jude Law), and Anna (Julia Roberts). At first, seeing these supposedly cerebral characters reveal their dirtiest desires feels like a pointed slice of satire, but the film turns from cringe humor to genuine trauma once the characters begin to actually care for each other.
Owen received his first (and to date only) Academy Award nomination for his performance, and it’s interesting to watch him bring the aggressive dominance seen in his action and crime roles to a romantic drama. Larry finds pleasure in being cruel, and the joy he gets from making others uncomfortable can be terrifying in one moment and then completely pathetic in another. Larry could’ve easily come across as either excessively unlikeable or overly campy, but Owen makes him feel unfortunately familiar.
1. Theo Faron, Children of Men
One of the great films of the 21st Century is also Owen’s most tender and emotional performance. A film about finding hope within a global health and political crisis feels particularly relevant amidst the COVID-19 era, and Alfonso Cuarón’s adrenaline-pumping thriller finds its most moving scenes when Theo (Owen) begins to see the possibility of a brighter future ahead. Within a world bordering on collapse due to decades of infertility, Theo agrees to take a pregnant woman to safety as she’s hunted by radicalists. Although Theo initially claims that he’s only in it for the money, the mission ultimately helps him discover his purpose.
Theo lost his own child in the early stages of the pandemic, and Owen uses this backstory to explore Theo’s dour attitude. It’s an articulate interpretation of grief, and the shared trauma felt by Theo and his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore) works best when the pair leaves their underlying affection for each other unsaid. The action sequences are harrowing and the premise is loaded with metaphorical implications, requiring a dynamic leading performance to avoid feeling either oppressively distressing or too sentimental. Owen’s depiction of a man escaping his own isolation weaves the two together beautifully.
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Dafoe also talks about balancing Hollywood movies with more artistic films and how the business has changed since he first started in the industry.
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