History is cyclical because the natural world consists of circles and spheres rather than straight lines, which I think is a sufficiently cosmological way to address the career of Woody Harrelson. The public conception of Harrelson as a space cadet (now allegedly in the past; et tu, Woody?) tends to cast a shadow over his reputation as an actor, which leads to the – at this point clockwork-like – regular intervals of reviews of new Woody Harrelson performances hailing his latest as his “best work yet” and dazed realizations that “wow, Woody Harrelson can act!” I am not going to cite specific examples, because shaming fellow critics isn’t the point here, and because I’m not the first person to point this out. I’m part of the same cycle. But that’s not the point either. The point is: Woody Harrelson is dope.
I phrase it that way not to make a weed joke but because the first time the realization hit me, it came in exactly that formulation, almost twenty-five years ago. White Men Can’t Jump was, at the time of its release, everything I ever wanted in a movie. It had basketball, baroque ritual insults, and Rosie Perez playing a very weird person from Brooklyn, which was important to me, as same. It had multiple subplots, some of which had nothing to do with the main story, which was almost there because there was a rule saying there needed to be a main story. It had Wesley Snipes at a point in his career when he was so cool that it didn’t matter that he dribbled higher than his head and dressed like a bike messenger, he was still the coolest. And, because this is all going somewhere, it had Woody Harrelson, engaged in exquisitely layered subterfuge. He’s introduced as a bouffon dork, the only white guy in the entirely black milieu of the basketball court, playing on everyone’s expectations that he concordantly sucks. As it transpires, he does not, and indeed is quite a deadly perimeter scorer and passer. He and Wesley team up, and hijinks ensue. The movie keeps from drifting off into the ether largely due to the efforts of its two leads, and in Woody’s case involves a lot of intricate and layered work to the end of not making his character, a charming and cunning but dumb compulsive gambler with anger issues, not come off as an exasperating asshole. The coup de grace, and what really puts the performance over, is Woody’s embrace of Billy Hoyle’s essential nature as an exasperating asshole, and his consistently sure handle on the exact emotional levels to hit to avoid losing the audience completely.
That, in so many words, is the through-line in Woody Harrelson’s career as an actor. His ability to find the overarching tone of a given text, play to it, define his space within it, and make the entire process look invisible is rare. The vulnerability in this skill set is that if the surrounding movie sucks, there isn’t a whole lot that can be done to elevate the proceedings or stand out from the pack. 2011’s Rampart saw Woody put in ferocious, committed work in a picture that lacked both a cohesive shape and momentum. The camera was fascinated with Woody, but at the expense of everything else; Rampart is an L.A. cop movie about things other L.A. cop movies have covered extensively – many of them also inspired or even written by co-screenwriter James Ellroy, here a victim of his own vast and definitive body of work on the subject, and coming off as a weak imitation of himself – and the mistaken sense of its own novelty makes Rampart a largely inert and superficial slab. Woody, on the other hand, is acting his motherfucking ass off in the middle of all this. His silences aren’t invested with any subtext or even much interiority to speak of, but he’s goddamn fascinating to just look at. When some interesting things finally happen in the concluding act and Woody makes his exit from the picture, it’s with the lingering regret that the preceding movie was unworthy of his effort.
If, to return to basketball for an appropriate analogy, Woody is a Klay Thompson-type actor, you can win do great things and be right there contending for a title if you pair him with a Steph Curry, which is what made the first season of True Detective, its assorted bullshit aside, such a delight for such extended passages. Woody and McConaughey were fucking sublime together. McConaughey spent the season doing the acting equivalent of pulling up from halfcourt (he has the range), but opposite him was Woody doing another one of his transcendental “how to play a total shithead while still being sympathetic” magic acts, investing a limited man with an exquisite array of layers and coming up with a tree trunk instead of a house of cards.
That’s Woody Harrelson. He’s that tree in the backyard, and when you’re on the back porch burning one with, oh hell, let’s say McConaughey’s there, with McConaughey, and McConaughey says to you, “Y’know, that tree there’s one of the special ones.” You give him a look like “not this high-ass bullshit again” but without getting a word out McConaughey corrects you: “Don’t take nothin’ for granted.” You’re worried he’s going to start in with his “time is a flat circle” mess again, so you barely notice the moment when you realize he’s right. Woody Harrelson’s acting exists in that moment between needing to be reminded and not being entirely certain that you ever really forgot it.
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