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20 Most Intense Movie Performances Of All Time

Subtlety in performance is an underappreciated thing. After all, the noble art of acting was always built on a platform of theatricality, and photo-realism has always only been admirable up to a point. What we like as audiences – and what critics like – is something a little more substantial.

Whenever the Oscars come round, there’s a reason why it isn’t the most deft performances or the most artfulyl subtle that tend to be awarded with recognition. Sure, there can be exceptions to that rule, where indie films win notoriety despite their understatement, but the performances involved rarely gain as much attention as the more explosive or “important” performances.

Alongside those markers, Hollywood’s gold-givers also tend to be drawn to the most intense performances – just as we as audiences tend to remember them more. They leave a mark, after all, and it’s always the performances that cut just within the limits of over-acting and self-indulgence – which find balance in realism and hyperbole – that linger the longest.

And while more and more films go for either pop performances (blockbusters tend not to have the same brand of intensity) or restrained subtlety, it would be a travesty for the art of intensity to wither and die. So we need to celebrate the best of that breed as much as possible.

After all, dialling it down isn’t always the best option…

20. Begbie (Robert Carlyle) – Trainspotting

Miramax

Some actors are just made for more volatile roles and Robery Carlyle definitely sits up at the top of that particular pile. Sure, he has range and plays everyman characters well thanks to his Caledonian warmth, but he’s never better than he’s invited to be explosive.

The role that very much announced that to the world came in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, in which he played the worryingly unhinged Francis Begbie. He’s a hand-grenade with a hair trigger, as quick to violence as he is to profanity and when he’s in full-flow, he’s terrifying.

Every scene he appears in is uncomfortably tense in the original, but there’s a disarming attractiveness to him – which can be the only reason he has “friends”. And by the time the sequel came around he had mellowed precisely none. If anything, he was actually worse.

19. Ezra Miller – We Need To Talk About Kevin

Artificial Eye

After some good TV work, Ezra Miller announced himself to the film-making world with a hell of a breakout role for Lynne Ramsay. His haunting, alien turn as Kevin Khatchadourian in We Need To Talk About Kevin is unsettling, difficult and important and he brought incredible maturity to it.

Opposite him, Tilda Swinton is a picture of fraught tension and disbelief at what her son has become, but it’s Miller’s cold-as-ice malevolence and his so-obvious sociopathy and psychopathy that is the most mesmerising thing about the entire film.

He is evil incarnate, removed from normal human behaviour and absolutely defined by contempt, and by the time he commits the chilling school massacre (as well as killing his father and sister), he’s fully realised as a horror movie monster.

18. Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) – Gangs Of New York

Miramax

Though there’s a lot to be said for the production design and Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance, the crowning glory of Gangs Of New York is the scintilatting, irresistible turn by Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill The Butcher.

He’s brilliant enough, in fact, to make Scorsese’s epic period piece look a lot less flawed than it actually is.

Legitimately terrifying and utterly captivating in a way that only the most memorable of villains are, Cutting is a towering presence – deep and measured in his evil but also explosively physical. He is charming like a political colossus and practically shakes with barely contained anger at times.

It’s no wonder nobody else on the cast could possibly compete with him.

17. Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) – Django Unchained

Sony

There’s a pretty convincing school of thought that says that Leonardo DiCaprio won his Oscar for the wrong movie entirely and while The Wolf Of Wall Street might be the favoured option, DiCaprio could just as easily have won gold for Django Unchained.

Though he’s not actually on screen for all that long, DiCaprio turned against type to play the plantation-owning slaver Calvin Candie. He’s the kind of villain who gets under the skin – the same sort as Daniel Day-Lewis’ Bill The Butcher in fact – who is charming and terrifying in equal measure.

And while he has affectations of class and refinement – including his terrible Tarantino-esque penchant for cocktails – he’s an animal disguised as a gentleman, whose explosive anger and violence spills over quickly and devastatingly. And when DiCaprio is in full, furious flow, he’s a sight to truly behold.

16. Raymond (Ray Winstone) – Nil By Mouth

EuropaCorp

When you have Gary Oldman behind the camera (in his directorial debut) and Ray Winstone in front of it playing the abusive, wounded patriarch in an unflinchingly real portrait of South London familial hell, you know you’re in for intensity.

Nil By Mouth is horribly personal-feeling (which is assisted by Oldman’s “in memory of my father” tribute) and despairingly real, and Winstone’s performance as Raymond is harrowing and complex. He’s a strange, difficult man, capable of kicking his pregnant wife but also crushing self-pity.

He’s a fireball of rage and misplaced masculinity, feeding off how his junkie best friend in turn feeds on his explosions. He acknowledges that he is the product of an abusive, unloving relationship with his own father, and when you realise that this is Oldman offerinf contemplation on forgiveness and his own life, the performance becomes all the more intense.

15. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) – The Silence Of The Lambs

Orion Pictures

While the Lecter sequel and prequels somewhat detracted from the impact of the character, that first appearance (by Anthony Hopkins at least) was a stunning moment in the history of thriller cinema.

His intensity is of an entirely different breed to what we see from the likes of Al Pacino or Robert DeNiro: he’s a still, clear pond (or at least presents himself as one), with an immaculate facade. Well-mannered, polite and genial, even, the real power of Hopkins’ Lecter comes in how disarmingly likeable he is, right up to the moment when he flicks his switch.

He’s a monster behind a veil, but when that drops, he lives up to his fearsome reputation, as terrifying and explosive as he first appeared ice-cold and alien. It’s still a remarkable experience to watch him now.

14. Bronson (Tom Hardy) – Bronson

Vertigo Films

Though he’d already turned a lot of heads thanks to his performances in Stuart: A Life Backwards and Meadowlands (and in Star Trek: Nemesis to a lesser extent), Tom Hardy really arrived thanks to Bronson. In the strange semi-biopic – in which Nicolas Winding Refn liberally bent the truth – he plays Britain’s most notorious prisoner, Charles Bronson.

And the film is really no more than a vehicle for Hardy’s performance, which Winding Refn clearly encouraged him to exaggerate as much as possible. Every quirk, every tic and every manifestation of his psychosis is amplified to a cartoonish level, in fitting with the decision to present the film as a stage show. He’s hyper-violent, theatrical and that special kind of exhibitionist the best villains tend to be: just try breaking his gaze.

The performance is as horrifying as it is captivating and if you wanted the best/worst endorsement of it possible, the real Bronson gave it his stamp of approval.

13. Andy Kaufman (Jim Carrey) – Man On The Moon

Universal Pictures

Intensity in performance is very much on a spectrum, and while Jim Carrey’s stunning, transformative performance in Man On The Moon feels wildly at odds with the villains and monsters elsewhere on this list, it is still a remarkably intense one.

In the pursuit of crafting a perfect portrayal of Andy Kaufman, rather than just a caricature, Carrey was clearly studious, and he manages to capture the comic’s weird, conscious intensity perfectly. What’s more, he refuses to dampen Kaufman as a character: he never softens him or makes him less complex and the result is a performance at odds with his own usual performances. He’s an extrovert, but Kaufman positively reveled in provocative, often uncomfortable bits – seeking the intrigue of when they’d go wrong. And that makes for a hell of a thing to watch.

Subsequently, the Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond has revealed the lengths Carrey went to to build his performance. He stayed in character as Kaufman at all times – including during a two hour phone call with Ron Howard about the Grinch movie – and lived Kaufman’s commitment to his own characters to add authenticity. It doesn’t half show.

12. Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) – The Pianist

Focus Features

There are very few descents into despair that are as captivating as that of Wladyslaw Szpilman in The Pianist. His story is an unflinching and deeply disturbing tale of human endurance in the most unthinkable conditions and Adrien Brody’s performance is one of stunning, raw brilliance.

Given the luxury of incredible, important material, Brody starts out as a dignified man thrust unknowingly into catastrophic horrors, at first quietly disbelieving and then forced through the worst of it himself. By the end, he’s a stripped nerve, electrified and difficult to watch, his body emblazoned by the marks of his situation. And when he breaks, it’s traumatic and compelling, with the added kicker – of course – that this True Story was not just true for one man but for many.

And in capturing it so soulfully in one man, Brody told it for the millions who couldn’t tell their own.

11. Ronnie Kray (Tom Hardy) – Legend

Universal Pictures

Tom Hardy is pretty much the modern intense actor of choice, having made a name for himself with physically imposing – often vocally idiosyncratic – hulk-men like Tommy Riordan Conlon, Bane, Bronson, Forrest Bondurant and Mad Max. And while he’s been more memorable in flashes in other performances, he’s never been as good or as terrifying as he in Kray Twins biopic Legend.

As Reggie, he’s disarmingly charming – the archetypal gentleman gangster (at least at first) – whose criminal activity feels like only a career. On the other hand, his brother Ronnie is a gorilla in a suit, bred for the bloodier, meaner side of the gangster “trade”. He bemoans the softening of it, the abandonment of a time when you could just have a “proper shoot-out” to solve everything.

And as likeable as Reggie is, Ronnie is impossible. Impossible to watch and impossible to resist. He’s occasionally hilarious, always terrifying and deeply, deeply troubled. Looking back, it’s remarkable that Hardy was even able to commit both performances at the same time – so taxing both must have been on him.

10. The Joker (Heath Ledger) – The Dark Knight

Warner Bros.

With The Dark Knight, despite his casting being sneered at widely, Heath Ledger changed perceptions of what actors could do in superhero movies. Not least because he won an Oscar, though even that seems scant reward for what he achieved as the new generation’s Joker.

In contrast to Jack Nicholson’s camp-edged Joker, Ledger crafted a performance closer to Nicholson’s turn in The Shining: captivating, animated and terrifying in equal measure.

He might not have been a physical match for Batman (though taking a beating with a smile is one way to render him impotent), but he was capable of something far more dangerous: he could destroy the Bat’s mind. He is an orchestra of affectations and tics, demented and playful and knowing the cost of the performance on Ledger makes him even more difficult to watch in retrospect.

9. Richard (Paddy Considine) – Dead Man’s Shoes

Film Four

If there was any justice in the world, Paddy Considine would be a far more well-known name than he is at the very top of the film industry, Sure, he’s had his moments in blockbusters and he makes films himself now, but he is an incredibly gifted character actor who deserves more attention.

His finest moment came in Shane Meadows’ brilliant Dead Man’s Shoes, which is so transformed by its heart-breaking twist that it offers two entirely different Considine performances. The first – watched without knowledge of the end – presents him as a twisted bad-ass, viscerally affecting and terrifyingly unhinged. He’s the monster in a slasher movie and he’s exactly as compelling and as intoxicating as the likes of Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees. You want him to win even “knowing” he’s bad.

But then when the secret is revealed and his wounds become clear, the true horror of his behaviour is unveiled and your perception of the whole film changes. You don’t just appreciate his dark cool any more, you live his trauma and it’s incredibly affecting.

8. Tommy DeSimone (Joe Pesci) – Goodfellas

Warner Bros.

Though he’s based on a real-life mobster figure of even more disturbing reputation, Tommy DeSimone is still one of Hollywood’s most notorious monsters. And thanks to Joe Pesci’s explosive performance, he’s one of the most discomforting figures in film history.

The biggest testament to his volatility – and to the intensity of Joe Pesci’s stunning performance – comes when he flips on Henry Hill for his own amusement, goading him for saying he’s “funny” simply as an exercise in intimidation. He’s busting balls, but you get a real insight into what he really is, not only in the way he acts but also in the way Hill reacts. There’s real terror there before he realises the ruse.

And it’s not until we see the murder of Billy Batts – committed on the back of a simple insult – that the true extent of his explosiveness really reveals itself. Like the best Pesci characters, he’s a hand grenade, but in the case of Goodfellas, we actually see it explode more than once.

7. Angel McCourt (Emily Watson) – Angela’s Ashes

Paramount Pictures/Universal Studios

Like The Pianist, Angela’s Ashes is a harrowing ordeal made all the more difficult to take by the True Story label on the front of it. It’s something a travesty that the film was never as appreciated on release as it deserved to be, particularly as it contains a stunning performance by Emily Watson, who plays the very heart of the story, Angela McCourt.

Her story is one of despair and tragedy – not a portrait of triumph over adversity, per se – more a celebration of persistence. Angela endures – quietly for the most part – and struggles on against some of the worst possible circumstances. She lives in abject poverty, exacerbated by her husband’s alcoholism, which murders her children and shatters her dreams. She is stoic but every blow wilts her further and the performance is simply stunning to watch.

Her intensity comes in her resilience and how she deals with the unending grief of her life and there are few performances quite like it.

6. Don Logan (Sir Ben Kingsley) – Sexy Beast

Film Four

There’s something about gangster movies that just breeds intense performances: perhaps it’s because no audience would believe that such criminal activity could be committed by normal people, requiring the film-makers to draw cartoonish thugs and pantomime villains?

Whatever the agenda or reason, Jonathan Glazer and Sir Ben Kingsley crafted one such character who fit that description rather perfectly for 2000’s Sexy Beast.

Don Logan is exacrtly what you’d expect of a man whose reason d’etre is recruiting the worst of the worst for his underworld bosses. He’s darkly charming, completely unhinged and so obsessively convinced of his own persuasiveness that it barely matters what his targets feel. He’s a whirlwind that progressively spins wilder as he’s rejected in his agenda and by the time he’s necessarily killed off, he’s absolutely monstrous.

It’s no real wonder Kingsley picked up an Oscar nomination for the performance. Logan would have been furious he didn’t win, though.

5. Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) – The Fighter

Paramount Pictures/TWC

Alongside Mark Wahlberg and Melissa Leo, Christian Bale made it a triumverate of great lead performances in The Fighter (two of which picked up Oscars), but it’s definitely Bale’s Dicky Eklund who stands out.

Another of Bale’s famed method transformations (for which he shed a terrifying amount of weight between Batman movies), Eklund is a portrait of energy and addiction. He’s a compulsive, enigmatic influence on his brother’s life and career, and while he’s definitely a tragic figure, he’s extroverted and self-destructive enough for the blame to fall mostly on himself.

This immersive, passionate performance was built on extensive research, including Bale’s notes on Eklund’s mannerisms and his manner of speech from recorded conversations. His director, David O. Russell put the success and the power of the performance down to Bale learning the “whole rhythm [and] music” to Dicky and to sticking in character, which must have taken its toll on him.

4. Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron) – Monster

Newmarket Films

Not only is Charlize Theron’s performance as Aileen Wuronos stunningly intense, it’s also one of the most convincingly transformative of all time. And that’s not merely a comment on a beautiful former model making herself ugly – Wuornos’ mannerisms and tics make her completely unrecognisable as Theron.

Theron has a real knack for playing fractured characters – and when you learn that her mother killed her abusive, alcoholic father in self-defence you may find some insight into why she’s drawn – and her Wuornos is a lot more than merely a physical transformation.

She channels that same irresistible, morbid fascination that the real-life Wuornos managed in her infamous documentary with Nick Broomfield. And while there’s a lot of subtlety to her rage and her vulnerability – it’s easy to forget Wuornos was a victim of abuse herself – the performance is showy in all the right ways and gripping in its intensity. And crucially, she is powerfully compelling without the film ever stooping to glamourise her.

3. Jake LaMotta (Robert DeNiro) – Raging Bull

United Artists

For a lot of people, Robert DeNiro is Mr Intensity and has an outside claim for the crown of Mr Method (though Daniel Day-Lewis and Christian Bale would have something to say about that, no doubt). The power of his most powerful performances is not up for debate though.

His turn as Jake LaMotta is the single best example of his commitment to method acting. To play the legendary boxer, he brutalised himself, allowing his weight to balloon for LaMotta’s post-fight career to the extent that it had a lasting impact on his posture and health. He also took boxing lessons to really sell the character’s profession.

But it’s the man behind the gloves that really comes across in his intense performance. LaMotta is animalistic and rage-filled, a well-liked legend with a nasty streak to end them all, whose crippling self-doubt and paranoia destroys everybody he loves. And as he spirals down the hole of his own creation, it’s impossible to look away.

2. Tony Montana (Al Pacino) – Scarface

Universal Pictures

There’s no doubting that Al Pacino’s Tony Montana is an animal, but the true power of his performance lies in the fact that he’s still able to find some glimmer of empathy in his creation. Sure, he’s a wild, ostentatious figure defined by excesses of personality and behaviour, but there’s still a wounded humanity about him that makes him perversely likeable.

His rise to power is compelling precisely of what Pacino brings to the character: were he not charming and darkly alluring, his tale would make him one-dimensional and disposable. Ultimately, Pacino paints the portrait of a man obsessed with winning, no matter what the cost and while we see his end coming a long time before the film ends, it’s almost endearing how little he does. Of course you aren’t supposed to aspire to be him, but you definitely don’t cast him off the same way you do Tommy DeSimone.

He may have been reduced to a couple of soundbites by now, but the entire performance – and its nuances – warrant far more praise than screaming about little friends.

1. Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) – The Shining

Warner Bros.

It’s hard to say much about Jack Nicholson’s flayed nerve turn as writer turned psychopath Jack Torrance in The Shining that hasn’t been said myriad times before. He’s almost a walking meme, thanks to that shot of him peering through his own axe-wound, but focusing only on one moment would be way too reductive and a disservice to the performance as a whole.

But that’s how captivating the performance is – it immediately lends itself to those memorable flashpoints, so it’s somewhat inevitable.

Torrance’s descent into madness from a seemingly “normal” starting point is one of the most compelling character arcs of all time. It is a complete transformation that impacts everything about him, from the way he moves to his speech and the success of it all comes down to Nicholson’s delivery. He starts off as a victim of his own haunting, but by the end he’s a tour de force of dangerous delusion and psychosis, and while Stephen King claimed he was too close to crazy to begin with, it’s just not correct to criticise.

Torrance’s anxiety at the beginning works to underpin his arc far better than any other decision Nicholson could have made. And anyway, authors are always too close to their own characters to really comment.

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