Features and Columns · Movies

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

Inception (2010)

The actor tackles his next sprawling cinematic adventure in the mind-bending Inception. Other popcorn flicks in Cillian Murphy’s filmography — In Time (2011), Transcendence (2014), and Anna (2019) — have attempted to re-create the chimerical resonance of this epic Christopher Nolan blockbuster. However, only Inception understands that you don’t just hire Murphy to sideline him.

On the surface, Murphy plays an antagonistic part of sorts within a massive sparkly ensemble. He is Robert Fischer, the grieving son of a deceased business titan singled out for corporate espionage. Fischer serves as a crucial mission and potential foil for our protagonists. The primary target of the movie’s eponymous model of mental infiltration.

Murphy unexpectedly ends up taking charge of several key emotional beats in Inception. Fischer experiences as much of a cathartic trajectory as the story’s troubled lead. The unraveling and reconfiguration of his dreams allow him to reach a state of personal evolution typically reserved for protagonists.

Murphy’s wide-eyed intensity and desperate grasp of Robert’s inner demons repudiates the notion of the character occupying the space of a traditional adversary. He takes a caviling, privileged shell of a man and lays his soul bare.

Retreat (2011)

Masculinity and power recur throughout Cillian Murphy’s filmography. Retreat, a chilling horror-thriller centering on a holidaying couple in mourning, is one of the actor’s most skillful attempts at wrestling with the concept of manhood.

In the movie, Murphy’s sweet, well-meaning Martin is devastated into inaction. His wife has suffered a horrific miscarriage, and his benumbed reaction to their loss causes them to drift apart.

Despite that stunted emotional response, Murphy never fails to remind viewers of Martin’s sadness through despondent acts of kindness. Lamentably, Martin’s goal of reconciliation is interrupted when Jamie Bell’s erratic, cryptic military official suddenly arrives at the pair’s doorstep. 

Charged with protecting his wife from a macho domineering stranger, the already-frail Martin must now put his physical limitations to the test. That said, the character banks on his mental acuity during this struggle for dominance. Murphy’s scenes with Bell are tensely shrewd, turning Retreat into an intoxicating game of manipulation hinging on its underdog lead.

Broken (2012)

Among the occasions that Cillian Murphy dabbles in exceedingly ordinary roles, Rufus Norris’ To Kill a Mockingbird-inspired family drama Broken is one of his best. The film spotlights three different families living on a cul-de-sac in Britain. It intersects complicated themes of ostracism and abuse with the achingly relatable confusion of an eleven-year-old girl’s coming-of-age.

Given the somber nature of the plot, one would expect Broken to have its fair share of explosive impassioned flare-ups. But not a lot of that work is relegated to Murphy, who depicts Mike, our child protagonist’s favorite school teacher.

Sympathizing with Murphy is a no-brainer, given that he plays one of the milder, more likable individuals hovering on the edges of this fractured narrative. Nonetheless, divisive choices, opinions, and beliefs about the neighborhood’s interpersonal relationships lead to dire, irreversible consequences. As a result, Mike’s life unavoidably derails, but at least his intentions are always good. With the little he is given, Murphy immortalizes an imperfect man in a searingly understandable way.

Aloft (2014)

On the topic of grief, Cillian Murphy’s filmography is rife with it. Rodrigo Cortés’ Red Lights (2012) aims to wrangle that idea with magic tricks and mind games but sadly, it falls flat. Instead, the reverberative contemplations of Claudia Llosa’s Aloft collate veritable examinations of human strife.

Don’t get me wrong: Aloft is full of ambiguities in its own right. Spiritual disputes are posed to Murphy’s character Ivan, a falconer with abandonment issues stemming from a rocky childhood with his prophetic mother. The oddity of his profession, his particularly loving nature towards kids, and an inherent wariness of strangers all directly link to the sorrows of his traumas. 

It is then no surprise that Ivan elects to see his mom again twenty years later. At which time he unleashes a litany of unresolved feelings. Gripping when guarded, Murphy is agonizingly soulful when he finally accesses Ivan’s flurry of torment. He calibrates this eruption perfectly, combining tenderness and tenacity that feels earned and justified.

Anthropoid (2016)

Cillian Murphy’s recent entries in the war film canon are strikingly extravagant. Sean Ellis’ stylish yet unsparing Anthropoid is most notable for being one of the very few movies to feature the actor as an actual historical figure — the other being the fabled unreleased Hippie Hippie Shake (2010). 

Murphy’s portrayal of Slovak parachutist Jozef Gabčík — one of the principal agents on the ground during the assassination of high-ranking SS official Reinhard Heydrich — is eerie and haunting. His version of Gabčík is wholly committed to his epoch-making assignment. But his grim scowl and logical mind are not one-note representations of his resilience.

In the film, Gabčík is a vital guiding force for comrade Jan Kubiš. Art imitates life in this respect, as Murphy himself fosters a believable, endearing kinship with his co-star. Not even cinematic romance detracts from his realism. Gabčík’s romantic bond with Anna Geislerová’s Lenka Fafková is anything but contrived.

Murphy imbues Gabčík with the sensibility to teach and learn from others, elevating Ellis’ film far beyond other biopics of similar scope.

Free Fire (2016)

Cillian Murphy is no stranger to crime flicks, especially funny ones. His characters in Ian Fitzgibbon’s Perrier’s Bounty (2009) and Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire — inadvertently or otherwise — find themselves caught in the crosshairs of violent gang activity. Murphy’s turn in the Wheatley film is considerably more interesting, though. Rather than merely functioning as a helpless homing device for chaos, he fills the shoes of Chris, an active arbiter of ruthlessness in his own right. 

The movie’s premise is as uncomplicated as they come. Murphy’s no-nonsense IRA member wants to purchase guns from an eclectic, unstable arms dealer in Boston. The factions — muscle and mediator alike — convene at an empty warehouse for the ill-fated transaction. Comically converting the neutral space into a literal free-fire zone.

Hence, Murphy has the elbow room to be inconsequentially caustic. There has always been a kind of naturalistic darkness to the humor he employs in his work. Free Fire specifically channels this temperament into a display of irritation and impatience that augments the mounting pressure between the story’s warring cabals. The lack of sensitivity in the movie may hinder our organic investment in these characters, but Murphy remains entirely engaging.

The Party (2017)

Sally Potter’s blisteringly hysterical The Party is a triumph of black comedy. The film sees a woman invite a bunch of people over for a get-together in celebration of a coveted promotion. Unfortunately, everyone else’s personal problems cause the night to go awry.

Cillian Murphy plays Tom, a drug-addled financier roasted for being a “wanker banker”. Anyone saddled with such an unappealing archetype from the get-go would be dubious. We are obviously inclined to think the worst of him. Murphy magnifies our distrust further, exploiting beguiling mannerisms despite being suspiciously jittery and honestly far too sweaty.

The actor consequently flips the script, inspiring us to feel for an amoral money man. Murphy so cleanly embodies Tom’s dualities that the character’s latently toxic qualities seem to melt away with time. He is no stranger to slice-of-life projects featuring pretty horrible people — another recent attempt can be found in The Delinquent Season (2018). But Murphy’s method of balancing self-righteousness with humaneness proves he is in top form in The Party.

Dunkirk (2017)

The third Christopher Nolan collaboration in Cillian Murphy’s filmography, Dunkirk, is clearly the superior seafaring movie in his resumé. Sure, Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea (2015) resounds with fantastical epic-ness. However, the amalgamation of thunderous visuals and the earnest purposefulness of Dunkirk’s World War II-centric narrative solidifies its lasting impact.

Telling the same story from three different perspectives with deliberately bare-bones characters requires actors as exact and expressive as Murphy to pack a substantial punch. We instantly take note of his disquieting role as the Shivering Soldier because of his poignancy. Murphy’s darting glances and painfully fallible instinct meld into an extremely visceral performance that the audience cannot help but empathize with. Murphy may essentially be a blank slate in Dunkirk. Nevertheless, he potently reinforces its message of endurance, trauma, and forgiveness.

A Quiet Place Part II (2021)

It’s always a joy to see acting veterans like Cillian Murphy uplift a new generation of artists, as he does in the scare-fest A Quiet Place Part II. The stunning follow-up to A Quiet Place resumes the arduous trials and tribulations of the Abbott clan as they scramble to find a home in a world overrun by murderous, sound-sensitive extraterrestrial monsters.

Murphy enters the scene as the Abbotts’ friend Emmett, who has lost his whole family since the deadly alien invasion. Scruffy, lonely, and bitter, he adopts a framework of self-sufficiency that, at first, cannot accommodate a sudden reunion with old pals.

Luckily, the Abbotts’ oldest daughter, Regan (Millicent Simmonds), is not having any of that. Emmett’s melancholy starkly contrasts with her unrelenting determination. Together, the duo initiates an unlikely pact to take a stand for their loved ones.

By now, his fans are aware of the sheer breadth of emotions he can effortlessly externalize through his eyes alone. What’s more notable is the onscreen trust between him and Simmonds. Their chemistry is profound, which beautifully translates into Emmett’s complementary support of Regan’s galvanizing heroics. They undoubtedly ensure that this sequel is worth watching.

Cillian Murphy sure has come a long way from his very first feature credit (a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance in Sweety Barrett). Hit or miss, his career has been filled with a plethora of high-stakes experiments. In the end, the task of narrowing down his resumé — to strip it to its bare essentials — reveals the tenets of Murphy’s acting philosophy. So rarely does a bona fide leading man supplement and fortify his co-stars while remaining distinct enough to inhabit iconic, individualistic stories. The most extraordinary and unforgettable characters in Cillian Murphy’s filmography reject the trappings of affectation, making him a one-of-a-kind showman.

Pages: 1 2

Related Topics:

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)