Thursday, November 16, 2017

Theory Thursday: An Appreciation Post on Jon Bernthal

Jon Bernthal in The Punisher
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: The Punisher premieres on Neflix this Friday.
Theory: Jon Bernthal is underrated.

Baby Driver
Every now and then, there comes a week where it's difficult to write extensively on a big topic. For instance, I know that I probably could've found something to talk about with Justice League coming out. But what could I say that would be interesting enough to warrant a column? I figure that the wells for Zack Snyder, Ben Affleck, and the entire D.C. Extended Universe are largely dried up. I have already discussed why Adam West is the best Batman. I have no reason to write a piece on why I thought Wonder Woman was overrated, in part because I still enjoyed it. In fact, there was plenty of reason to not write this week until I remembered that there was another superhero story making the rounds this Friday: the Netflix series The Punisher.

Now, I'm not here to sell you on The Punisher. Those who have been following the various properties already know where you stand on watching the latest series in Netflix's version of The Avengers. However, my excitement for the series reminded me in part why that was: Jon Bernthal. He's probably a name that you have seen around in a movie or two. He's had a noteworthy supporting role in The Wolf of Wall Street, and even appeared in this summer's excellent Baby Driver. I'll admit that he hasn't quite become a household name quite like Jason Statham or Dwayne Johnson, but I do think he's quickly becoming a name that I trust in the right action vehicle. Much like Statham and Johnson, I see him as someone who exudes a toughness necessary to make roles like The Punisher work, and it's enough to explain why I'm excited about the new Netflix series in spite of the familiar negative reviews that probably would've turned me off with a lesser actor in the lead role.

While this is a movie website, I still think that some people's first exposure to Bernthal was on TV. Even if he had a lengthy resume by 2010's The Walking Dead, he left a great impression as Shane. It's what embodies his best work (even if that series is an endless barrage of mediocrity). There is something to Shane that is equally trustworthy as it is devious. He conveys leadership and is intimidating to those who challenge him. He's also charismatic, making his death in the series one of the early standout moments. He was a complex figure on a show that amounted to shooting zombies for 100 episodes. He had heart along with being a strong man. Even as he opened up to others, there was never a sense of weakness. Shane was a well rounded character, and one that conveyed Bernthal's ability to play powerful leaders.

There was of course the aforementioned The Wolf of Wall Street where he played Jordan's sidekick Brad. Once again, it would be easy to suggest that his masculinity was his defining trait. In a film full of excesses of every kind, he managed to portray his character with a humor and cockiness that the best Martin Scorsese characters had. He couldn't outshine Leonardo DiCaprio (Then again, who could?), but he was part of the rich tapestry that made his skeevy corruption all the more interesting. Brad wasn't someone to be messed with. If you did, he would know you flat out in seconds, and the fact that Scorsese and writer Terrence Winter managed to find a middle ground between disdain and empathy is itself brilliant. Of course, he also played other levels of complex characters in movies such as Fury, World Trade Center, Sicario, and most recently with Baby Driver.

He also has played against type occasionally, such as in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl where he was required to play a less violent character. There were other films like Date Night and the series Show Me a Hero where he flexed his dramatic chops. I do believe that he's done a lot of excellent work as a supporting player, but it's tough to suggest that he's delivered his definitive work yet. I think that for now he manages to convey the complexity of masculine figures with a vulnerability and heart that is necessary to make their actions empathetic. Even in his first go as The Punisher in Daredevil's second season, he managed to have a light humor to him as his "soldier with PTSD" character was allowed to be more than a violent vigilante. Time will only tell how sympathetic he is in a lead role.

For now, he remains one of those actors that I can trust in a movie to make it a little more lively. I admit that at best his work right now is great in doses. I can't turn to one movie and suggest that this is why I love him. It's in part because he is more of a character actor still whose work is less showy than his lead acting co-stars. Even then, I'd like to think that The Punisher will do to him what Jessica Jones did for Kristen Ritter, or Luke Cage for Mike Colter. They're not household names, but they embody their roles so perfectly that it becomes the necessary shorthand in 21st century pop culture. There have been a few Punishers before, but will Bernthal be THE Punisher? I could hope so, if just because it means he has something that I can point to and have people recognize why I'm so attracted to his work.

With all of this said, Bernthal is probably going to be around no matter what positive gossip I send his way. I consider this post more as a moment to recognize an actor that I feel deserves some credit. He may have been a minimal character in Baby Driver, but he made the most of his limited screen time. Likewise, I currently notice that his future work includes Damien Chazelle's (yes, La La Land's Damien Chazelle) next movie First Man. Considering the success Chazelle has had with his past two movies, who knows if this will be a big break for Bernthal. If not, he at least has an impressive resume and may get further appreciation once people catch on to the value of supporting actors. The movies wouldn't be the same without them. To have someone as charismatic and physical an actor as Bernthal is an underrated tool, if just because it gets mistaken as cheesy action stuff. Sure, Bernthal has done that, but I want to believe he's capable of more.

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