Joel Edgerton’s expressive, stark features and perpetually narrowed eyes could create any number of associations. The Australian actor has been playing anything from memorable bit parts to show-stealing supporting actor roles in major Hollywood productions for nearly fifteen years. To obsessives who choose to hold the memory of the now-discredited Star Wars prequels close, Edgerton will always be, first and foremost, Uncle Owen in Episodes II and III; to others, he’s the paunchy, red-faced Tom Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann’s decadent, Jay-Z-punctuated Great Gatsby adaptation.
But last year, the 41-year-old actor, seemingly overnight, became the most fascinating and mysterious man in Hollywood. His difficult-to-characterize psychological thriller The Gift — he wrote, produced, and directed — became an unexpected critical and box office hit, raking in $59 million on a $5 mil budget. The film was Edgerton’s first full-length directorial turn, but it was impossible to tell; The Gift turned out to be one of last year’s most expertly paced and beautifully shot dramas. Edgerton’s Hitchcock-esque adeptness with building tension across a little over 90 minutes earned him a Director’s Guild nomination for Best First-Time Director.
Clearly, there was more to this hunk-ish, Stanley Kowalski-looking figure than met the eye. Relatively few people were prepared for such a persuasive statement from Edgerton, being unaware of his longtime aware second life as a writer and producer of films since the ‘90s, when he began Blue Tongue Films, an indie production company, with his brother.
This year, Edgerton broadened his profile even furher, starring in two unusual, carefully stylized films which have prompted critical adulation and bemusement, respectively. The first is Mud director Jeff Nichols’ recently released sci-fi slow burner, Midnight Special; the latter is the less well-received feminist revenge western Jane Got a Gun with Natalie Portman, an ambitious production which proved to be a spectacular box office failure.
If Jane Got a Gun — a film that was caught in development hell for several years — simply evidences Edgerton’s willingness to sign onto smaller projects he finds unusual or interesting, Midnight Special llustrates his ability to vastly improve a film that is already overpopulated with great actors and sharp ideas. He functions as lead Michael Shannon’s sidekick, but Edgerton more than holds his own, allowing a character with few lines and relatively little agency in the plot to feel well-rounded. As dutiful, honest, and impassioned former Special Forces officer Lucas, he wrings all possible attendant emotion out of every pithy line and pained look he contributes.
Nichols’ film is about what happens when a group of people truly believe in something, to the extent that they are more than willing to sacrifice themselves, and seemingly forget their entire previous existence. The characters’ minimal development and backstory emphasizes this theme, and is instrumental in creating the movie’s mystical atmosphere. Edgerton plays something of a lost soul, just like Shannon, Kirsten Dunst, Sam Shepherd, and the rest of this film’s formidable cast. However, Edgerton externalizes, with a method-like intensity, both his inner anguish and the sense of transportative wonder he feels looking into Alton’s (Jaeden Lieberher) eyes in a way that no one else in the film does. He is an evocative mess of hope, regret, and a mercenary’s sense of duty.
But Edgerton is not just the kind gifted actor who will add a touch of class to any production that reaches out with an adequate paycheck. His statements about Midnight Special last year reveal how much modest but clever, left-of-the-center narrative movies like Nichols’ are dear to his heart. It’s clear that Edgerton is deeply considering the projects he wants to be a part of:
“…there’s the austerity with which Jeff Nichols makes movies. He’s very classic in his structure and form. That appeals to me and the people who I work with. He’s not trying to draw too much attention to the filmmaking itself, and as a result, they end up getting a lot of attention. Because there’s something classic about their movies.”
The same description could really apply to The Gift as well. Edgerton is clearly deeply interested the past and future of filmmaking — in the timeless qualities which make a story resonate in an over-saturated market, largely reliant on go-to formulas. This type of restraint and craft is central to both Midnight Special and The Gift.
Edgerton is only being poised for bigger moves. Nichols’ next film — his second to be released this year — will premiere at Cannes this year, with both Shannon and Edgerton back in starring roles. The film, Loving, tells the story of the Virginia trial which led to the legalization of interracial marraige; Edgerton plays the husband in the couple on trial.
He’s also set to star alongside Will Smith in supernaturally-tinged buddy cop film Bright directed by Fury/Suicide Squad director David Ayer and written by American Ultra’s Max Landis. The project will be Netflix’s most expensive to date. One can only hope that Ayer and Co. will use the Netflix-only platform to their advantage, and make some more eccentric choices. Smith and Edgerton seem like the team to breath life into a goofball concept like this one, even if they have to transform it into full-on camp in the process.
Outside of these more concrete projects, he recently co-wrote a script for a Shakesperean drama inspired by Henry IV and Henry V with Animal Kingdom/The Rover director David Michôd, and it’s looking for a home in the studio system. Goodbye, “Oh, that guy…what’s his name?” status. If Oscar Isaac is shaping up to be this generation’s Cary Grant, Edgerton could be our Humphrey Bogart, or maybe even Orson Welles if he gets in the director’s chair more.