This weekend is the release of X-Men: First Class, a prequel of sorts to the original X-Men trilogy most of us grew up with the past decade. Reviews have been surprisingly positive considering the hole dug by X-Men: The Last Stand and Cumbersome Franchise Title: Wolverine, but praise has especially been heaped on its star Michael Fassbender’s “breakout” performance. General moviegoers will probably be surprised by the man’s ubiquity this year (he has five films scheduled for release in 2011 alone!), but it comes as no surprise to me. Moreover, I’m absolutely delighted by it.
Though most of them probably don’t realize it, mainstream audiences have most likely seen him before. Remember the trailer for 300, where one of Xerxes’ cronies warns that the Persian army’s arrows will “blot out the sun,” and a Spartan replies, “Then we will fight in the shade”? Yep, that’s him. Tiny part, I know; just one of the dozens of hilariously ripped dudes hacking and slashing for the GLORY OF SPARTAAAAA!!! Ahem, excuse me…obviously he had been working long before that, mostly on television shows like “Band of Brothers,” “Murphy’s Law” and “Hex,” but 300 was likely the first time he was exposed to a widespread audience…albeit briefly.
It wasn’t until December of 2008 that he really got to show off his acting chops in Steve McQueen’s explosive debut film, Hunger. The severely brutal drama stars Fassbender as Bobby Sands, an IRA prisoner who leads a hunger strike to have his comrades be recognized as political prisoners. Scene after scene of being beaten and humiliated, coupled with his medically supervised “crash diet” to prepare for the part, one would think that Fassbender’s performance is laudable simply for his physical commitment (even Christian Bale would be impressed), but he also grabs the opportunity for some old-fashioned thesping with flying colors. In an unbroken shot lasting over fifteen minutes, he engages in a lengthy dialogue with his priest over the morality of his struggle, and realizes a charismatic but profoundly damaged individual, at first seemingly full of hollow bravado before telling the story of the “wee foal” that transforms Sands into someone truly heroic. Hunger is an uncompromising, borderline apocalyptic piece of cinema, but McQueen’s artistry and Fassbender’s acting make it an unforgettable experience. The film is available for streaming on Netflix right now; I highly recommend you all find the time to watch it.
While you’re at it, try to also make the time for his other great performance in Andrea Arnold’s unusual coming-of-age drama Fish Tank. His was a supporting role, but his contribution was indelible, and the challenge of effectively playing the character was considerable. Connor is a high-wire act for any actor; the audience has to find him charming and intriguing, but also be given small, subtle hints that there’s something not quite right about Mia’s mom’s hot new boyfriend. The vast majority of actors would have telegraphed his transgressive, cavalier attitude to foreshadow his One Fatal Flaw, but Fassbender wraps that personality so tightly around the character that he effectively hides what’s coming in plain sight. Whereas Hunger required a serious physical assurance, in Fish Tank he needed to bury his emotional inhibitions. It is the kind of invisible, precise performance that – almost inevitably – got lost in the shuffle of the awards season last year.
But with all this talk of tiny but outstanding indie dramas, we shouldn’t forget that he’s had major roles in Oscar nominees and box office hits before. Case in point, Inglourious Basterds, where he played critic-cum-commando Lt. Archie Hicox as so suave you’d think he was auditioning to be the next James Bond (say, that’s not such a bad idea…). Yeah, so the film itself was a sloppy, overrated bungle of self-indulgent bloodlust with a deplorable final act, and maybe Christoph Waltz stole the show from everyone by a mile. That shouldn’t mean we can’t be entertained somewhat by Fassbender having a spot of fun in between his serious forays.
Then again, I can’t really defend his choice of roles in films like Blood Creek, Centurion or Jonah Hex. Hey, I never said he was perfect, and just remember: Kate Winslet was one of the stars of A Kid in King Arthur’s Court (right after Heavenly Creatures, no less!) and Ryan Gosling was in Stay.
Now, in 2011, he’s set to explode in a big way. We’ve already seen him as Rochester in Cary Fukunaga’s haunting version of Jane Eyre. This weekend of course he will portray a young Magneto in X-Men: First Class. He’s also set to re-team with Steve McQueen for his Hunger follow-up Shame, where he’ll play a sex addict whose life changes when his younger sister moves in with him. He’ll also be starring in Steven Soderbergh’s actioner Haywire, scheduled for release in August. But his highest-profile project this year, arguably, is David Cronenberg’s psychological drama A Dangerous Method, about the tumultuous relationship between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud that results in the creation of modern psychotherapy.
So why am I so excited for this actor breaking out into the mainstream, despite seemingly being just another handsome white guy that Hollywood pushes as the Next Big Thing? To me, he is someone that the industry continually looks for but seldom finds these days: the thespian movie star. Unlike talentless lunks Sam Worthington and Brandon Routh, or the repulsively smarmy Gerard Butler and Bradley Cooper, or overall cinematic blights like Hayden Christensen, Michael Fassbender is someone who is both a charismatic leading man AND a brilliant, subtle actor. As I hope I’ve shown in this write-up, Fassbender has more than earned the right to be given plum roles in major films, and could very likely be an Oscar nominee next January (Mike and I predict he’ll be nominated for A Dangerous Method, Anna believes Shame will be his ticket in). Even if he’s not, though, I am confident in pegging him as the real deal, and with the excellent performances he’s already given, I can’t wait to see what he’ll do next.