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The Cinematic Essentials of Cillian Murphy

The esteemed chameleonic performer behind our favorite villains and unlikely heroes touts a fascinating and diverse slate worth celebrating.
A Quiet Place Cillian Murphy
Paramount Pictures
By  · Published on August 7th, 2021

Welcome to Filmographiesa column for completists. Every edition brings a working actor’s resumé into focus as we learn about what makes them so compelling. In this entry, we spotlight the filmography of Cillian Murphy.

Cillian Murphy is tremendously well-loved here at Film School Rejects. A cursory glance through our archives reveals interviews, listicles, and reviews gushing over his many onscreen achievements.

The praise is totally warranted. Murphy is one of the most impressive linchpins of Irish stage and screen. His projects regularly inform the cultural zeitgeist — evidenced by his monumental blockbuster slate as well as his small-screen triumphs in the influential BBC historical drama Peaky Blinders. Furthermore, Murphy’s more modest cinema output, including homegrown Irish stock, hits home for audiences everywhere. 

Read on for the Filmographies treatment of Cillian Murphy’s feature-film highlight reel:

Disco Pigs (2001)

Cillian Murphy daringly proves his mettle as the unsettlingly reckless Pig in Kirsten Sheridan’s irreverent Irish drama Disco Pigs. Adapted from Enda Walsh’s stage play of the same name, Murphy’s lead is disaffected, brash, and dangerously possessive.

Pig was born moments apart from his best friend Runt. The two would grow up mimicking each other to the point that they seem telepathic. Regrettably, their friendship — built on a collective resentment of normative society that supposedly fails to appreciate their quirks — takes a turn for the worst. Runt contemplates a life separate from Pig, who has now fallen in unrequited love with her.

Murphy’s performance is astoundingly reactionary. Proceeding down a path of hostile alienation, the electrifying Pig bubbles over with sheer vulnerability and yearning. Failing to express his burgeoning desires healthily. The most painful aspect of Disco Pigs involves this deep-seated discord underpinning the character. Ultimately, this maladjusted young man captivates us despite the moral repugnance of his actions.

On the Edge (2001)

The early works in Cillian Murphy’s filmography comprise many Irish ensemble efforts. Serviceable credits in Sunburn (1999) and Intermission (2003) notwithstanding, John Carney’s On the Edge compels the then-fresh-faced actor to lean into his playful side without sacrificing the pathos that would go on to shape the bulk of his resumé.

The film is set against the backdrop of a psychiatric facility. Murphy’s young offender Jonathan is hospitalized for suicidal tendencies in the aftermath of his father’s untimely death. Around him, fellow patients boast similarly arresting and heartbreaking backstories.

Murphy is chiefly responsible for heightening the energy levels of On the Edge. Jonathan’s cockiness disguises depression and anxiety with a devil-may-care attitude. Fortunately, his abrasive personality actually draws the other patients out of their shells. Cultivating treasured attachments that carry them through recovery. Armed with a witty, animated demeanor, Murphy showcases a flair for vividly coherent character development as he takes charge of a vibrant, likable cast.

28 Days Later (2002)

28 Days Later, Danny Boyle’s quintessential post-apocalyptic horror classic, centers on a highly contagious “rage” virus that has left society desolate and bloodthirsty. Practical and moral questions linger over a small group of uninfected survivors as they navigate the end of the world.

This includes Cillian Murphy’s bemused leading man Jim. Having just awoken from a coma in the middle of the apocalypse, he must quickly reorientate himself to the violent circumstances of day-to-day life. He isn’t yet grisly or worldly, and instead retains a degree of frenzied drive and a good deal of heart.

Of course, all-out optimism is a pipe dream for Jim. Regardless, he personifies the core tenet of “carrying on” in 28 Days Later: human connection. Murphy transforms from a bumbling everyman into an admirable unlikely hero the more he forges bonds with fellow survivors. His take on Jim highlights the significance of compassion amid overwhelming adversity and apparent hopelessness. 

The success of 28 Days Later propelled Murphy to definite mainstream stardom, opening doors to star-studded projects such as Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003). Moreover, 2005 would then become one of his most prominent years in the entertainment industry. During which he starred in various films that tested multiple facets of his acting prowess.

Red Eye (2005)

Wes Craven’s Red Eye utilizes the archetypal but sensible horror premise of airplane anxiety to introduce Cillian Murphy as a decidedly demented genre antagonist. The actor plays a terrorist aptly named Jackson Rippner who holds an unwitting hotel manager hostage on an overnight flight in a bid to force her to aid in a targeted political assassination.

Murphy’s signature icy blue eyes often contribute to his onscreen allure, and Red Eye is no exception. Rippner relies on a disarming gaze and an easygoing aura to get what he wants. That intriguing stare soon deadens and threatens in a completely unnerving way. As Rippner’s elegantly analytical and charming countenance shatters, Murphy mutates and sickens with the deranged fervor of a thoroughly entertaining villain.

Batman Begins (2005)

Cillian Murphy maintains a bit of an evil streak by donning the role of Jonathan Crane / Scarecrow in Christopher Nolan’s influential The Dark Knight trilogy. His supporting performance in Batman Begins leaves a delightful impression that pierces through the gritty devastation otherwise permeating these movies as a whole.

Crane’s slight, unassuming figure and deliberately restrained conduct mask (no pun intended) a wildly unhinged personality that thrives on pure, unadulterated ego. Special-effects work goes into the disorienting image of the Scarecrow persona. However, Murphy provides a crucial grounding presence of muted sarcasm and sanctimonious frustration that lets Crane leap from the screen.

Such snark makes Crane a surprisingly pleasant staple in The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). These cameo appearances enable Murphy to deliver slick, biting wit in minuscule doses. Painting a picture of the Scarecrow as a gleeful repeat offender that we love to hate.

Breakfast on Pluto (2005)

Cillian Murphy has depicted a couple of women throughout his filmography. He headlines Michael Lander’s Peacock (2010), a psychological thriller that unspools a Hitchcockian battle of masculine and feminine identities residing in a single individual.

In comparison, Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto is an uplifting coming-of-age tale focused on Kitten, a trans woman who leaves her small Irish hometown on a personal odyssey to reconnect with her birth mother.

The conundrum of casting cisgender actors in trans roles is a well-worn cinematic practice that has aged terribly and requires continual redress. Our increased salience of this issue over the years inevitably affects any holistic assessment of even an older film like Breakfast on Pluto.

By that same token, the movie is incredibly significant to Murphy’s filmography. In its tender narrative that keenly avoids saccharine plot points, the actor dives into a medley of dry wit and heartrending drama. Demonstrating real care for Kitten’s humanity and personhood. Murphy deploys a double-edged gaze that showcases Kitten’s layers — indelible mixtures of softness, intricacy, and gleeful confidence. Kitten not only survives the throes of growing up; she absolutely thrives as one of Murphy’s most life-affirming protagonists.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006)

Ken Loach’s tragically sobering epic The Wind That Shakes the Barley is but one of Cillian Murphy’s numerous forays into war movies. We can track the harrowing task of portraying soldiers back to initial ventures like The Trench (1999) and Cold Mountain (2003). That said, the Loach film provides Murphy with one of his meatiest — if bleakest — roles in to date.

To witness Murphy’s standout performance in The Wind That Shakes the Barley is to cherish the story’s profound throughline of socialist and nationalist debate. He plays Damien, an impressionable young doctor inspired to fight for his brother Teddy’s brutal vision during the Irish War of Independence.

But with age and maturity comes the realization that Damien’s sympathies lie with civilians over establishments — regardless of Teddy’s blessing. Now thoughtful in silence and forceful in speech, Damien wrestles with unabating inner turmoil over the violence he himself has perpetuated for his cause. Murphy deals with such trauma without an inkling of melodrama, grappling with the ethical quandaries of combat with utmost precision.

Watching the Detectives (2007)

I personally love that Cillian Murphy stars in the quirky rom-com Watching the Detectives — it’s just something vastly different for him as a performer. Murphy being lovestruck in How Harry Became a Tree (2001) and The Edge of Love (2008) is one thing. These dramas contrast the actor’s delicate sentimentality with distressing elements of trauma and unrest.

Murphy’s adeptness at his craft extends to a lesser-used buoyant, infectious appeal that he rigorously exercises in Watching the Detectives. His noir-obsessed movie buff character, Neil, is a roguish video store owner. And he spends his days dreaming up ludicrous schemes to liven up his dull life. But from the moment he crosses paths with the equally ridiculous femme fatale-esque patron Violet, he gets way more than what he bargained for.

When Neil is around Violet and her outright illegal shenanigans, his own mischief comes across as child’s play. Murphy toggles delightful overconfidence and hilarious perplexity when dealing with a trouble-making, unpredictable Liu. Best of all, the narrative relishes in its lawlessness, allowing both actors to foster firecracker chemistry enthusiastically.

Sunshine (2007)

The other 2007 offering in Cillian Murphy’s filmography, Sunshine, is notably less feel-good. The actor re-teams with the core creatives behind 28 Days Later and is about to save humanity once more. This time, Murphy is a physicist named Robert Capa. Along with seven other brilliant scientists, he braves the horrors of space on a quest to reignite a dying Sun.

On the one hand, the quiet, reclusive Capa is all about rationality. After all, he built the catastrophic starbomb that would make or break the job. On the other, we identify with the nagging personal responsibility he feels towards his family left on Earth.

Compared to Sunshine’s other characters — ones that are largely drawn in either sentiment- or purpose-driven strokes — Capa is uniquely positioned at the intersection of heart and mind. In embodying a perceptive, intelligent, but ultimately flawed man who faces impossible decisions at every turn, Murphy bears the brunt of that accountability with sincere conviction. He makes Capa’s heroics truly admirable, manifesting the film’s core debate of science and faith.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)