Friday, April 10, 2015

Birthday Take: Barkhad Abdi in "Captain Phillips" (2013)

Barkhad Abdi
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Barkhad Abdi
Born: April 10, 1985 (30 years old)
Nomination: Best Supporting Actor - Captain Phillips (nominated) as Muse

The Take

There are few anomalies in recent years as mysterious in the Oscar nominations as that of Barkhad Abdi. Over the course of one film, he made his debut alongside Tom Hanks, got an Oscar nomination and infamously went bankrupt. Where other 2013 nominees like Lupita Nyong'o had other projects lined up, Abdi's turn in Captain Phillips feels like a one-off that just happened to luck himself into an Oscar nomination. For those who wish to see more of the visceral lunacy, you don't have to wait much longer. He will be making a cameo in the Judd Apatow film Trainwreck, which is out this summer.

Still, the performance feels like something of lore, especially with many focusing on Hanks' performance that evolves from boat captain to a traumatized victim. His turn is shocking and many penned an Oscar nomination to their prediction chart. However, the only actor to walk away with anything was the villain of the piece: Abdi as Muse the Somali pirate who hijacks the ship and gives the now iconic line "I'm the captain now." Comparatively, Muse doesn't have nearly as much screen time as Hanks, but he is immediately threatening not only because of Abdi's lack of name recognition. He has a deranged look in his eye that hints at a chance that if something went wrong, you would wind up dead by his gun.

The film has a lot of merit, even if it is at times a little too clinical in the rescue mission to save Hanks' titular character. There's even points where director Paul Greengrass' direction that wades through scenes uneasily become too much of a novelty. As the story progresses, it takes on a more compelling twist that almost makes Muse a tougher character to nail down. He may be violent, but he is also trying to survive and live a worthwhile life. Despite a not so positive outcome for him, we do get a few moments of him being sympathetic and possibly too simple minded. A lot of the magic comes from the charisma and the underlying commentary that fuels the otherwise interesting take on the average thriller.

His nomination was at very least unexpected yet a pleasant surprise considering that Captain Phillips had failed to capture a lot of awards buzz. In a competitive year, it was interesting to see a newcomer debut and make a strong impression. The Academy hasn't always been kind to first time actors, but there was something to starring opposite a beloved icon like Hanks that made his work cut out for him. It may be silly to expect him to have had a career skyrocket after this film, but considering that reports came out that he was bankrupt leading up to the ceremony only makes this win more tragic and odd. Would he take on roles and earn himself more acclaim? According to Wikipedia, he was doing what he did before Captain Phillips: working in his brother's cell phone store. It isn't a total waste however, as he is also an ambassador for Adeso.

Still, for a performer who not only debuted alongside a heavyweight but in many ways surpassed, it remains mysterious why he hasn't done more. Maybe he is more like Daniel Day Lewis and is too selective of his roles. Maybe he is waiting for that role that will surprise us and show just how charismatic he truly is. Of course, it's only been two years and we must be patient sometimes. Still, in a world where Oscar nominees become headliners for passion projects and live the good life, it seems weird that Abdi hasn't achieved those heights. Even Nyong'o is lined up for a Disney remake of The Jungle Book. Either way, he has one great performance to his name, which is sometimes enough to solidify your reputation as a good actor.

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