Christopher Nolan loves movie stars. He’s collaborated with some of the biggest movie stars of the 21st century (Leonardo DiCaprio, Matthew McConaughey, Robert Pattinson) and created a few of his own (Christian Bale, Tom Hardy) in the process. Like the great Hollywood directors before him, he understands that a charismatic screen presence allows him to explore concepts and framing devices that would otherwise be unpalatable to mainstream audiences.
That being said, no actor has been as crucial to Nolan’s career as Cillian Murphy. The two men have collaborated on six films, and their latest effort, “Oppenheimer” (2023), marks the first time that Murphy has taken center stage. He’s the titular character, and the irony of movie stars like Matt Damon and Robert Downey, Jr. playing second fiddle is not lost on the director. “This is the one where you carry the movie and really get to show what you can do,” he recalls telling Murphy during an EW interview. “Oppenheimer” is being sold as an artistic culmination for these like-minded talents, which means there’s no better time to explore how they got here.
Nolan and Murphy’s creative partnership began with a rejection. The former was casting “Batman Begins” (2005), and the latter was auditioning to play the caped crusader. Murphy was unsurprised to learn that he didn’t get the part (he later joked about not having the right physique). Still, he left such an indelible impression on the director that he was cast as the film’s secondary villain, the Scarecrow. It’s easy to see why. Murphy is unnerving from the moment he enters the frame. His delivery is sporadic, his body language threatening despite his lanky frame. Then there are the eyes. Few actors have ever had more piercing and expressive eyes than Cillian Murphy, to the point where he’s scarier with the Scarecrow mask off than on.
Murphy makes cameos in “The Dark Knight” (2008) and “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012), making him one of only five actors to appear in the entire trilogy. The other four: Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman, are movie stars. Murphy doesn’t have a ton to do in these sequels and is marginally less threatening than before, but there is something admittedly fun about seeing the Scarecrow preside over a Gotham tribunal. The scene where he sentences the commissioner and his cohorts to “death by exile” is the closest the trilogy ever got to the gothic lunacy of “Batman: The Animated Series.”
“Inception” (2010) was a different beast. Nolan used the blank check he’d been given after “The Dark Knight” to mount an original story about thieves who operate within the dreams of their targets. The ensemble of thieves the director put together was immaculate (DiCaprio, Hardy, Elliot Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ken Watanabe), but Murphy was given the trickier and inherently less sexy role of the target. He was going to be the one who spent the entire film getting duped.
Here’s the thing: Murphy nails it. He takes a callous millionaire and infuses him with so much raw vulnerability throughout the film that one can’t help but feel for the guy when he’s tricked into dismantling his father’s empire. Murphy’s character functions as a clever inverse of DiCaprio’s in that one is a child trying to break free of a parent, and the other is a parent trying to get back to his children. It’s a theme that Nolan likes to explore often, and the success of his films can often hinge on how well it’s executed. It’s rarely been executed better. “Inception” is a masterpiece for several reasons, but Murphy’s nuanced performance is often one of the easiest to overlook. Make sure you don’t.
“Dunkirk” (2017) was another radical departure. Nolan ditched the Hifalutin fiction and dramatized the evacuation of British soldiers during World War II. It was the first instance of the director going the “true story” route, though he did maintain his stylistic trademarks. “Dunkirk” is broken down into three sections: land, air, and sea, and each of them unfolds in different intervals of time. Murphy plays a soldier who gets picked up at sea and is dead set against returning to the combat zone to rescue others. His panic is compounded by the fact that he’s dealing with undiagnosed “shell shock,” or what would later be termed PTSD.
Murphy has often been tasked with playing reserved men who come apart at the seams. His performance in “Dunkirk” is so memorable because it removes the reserve. His unnamed soldier is a mess from the moment he gets picked up, and he only gets worse. In the film’s most tragic subplot (which is saying a lot), Murphy’s character tries to take control of the boat and accidentally knocks over a civilian. The civilian in question cracks his head open and eventually bleeds out. Murphy’s character is lied to and told that the civilian will be just fine. Of course, in the film’s closing sequence, he sees the civilian’s corpse being carried off the boat. Nothing is said, but a quick glimpse of Murphy, planted and staring while soldiers pass by, communicates the lifetime of regret that will follow. “Dunkirk” is the closest Nolan has come to making a silent film, and in choosing to prioritize image over word, he allows space for unforgettable moments such as these.
This brings us to “Oppenheimer.” Nolan and Murphy have returned to the same time period and fact-based storytelling as “Dunkirk,” but the approach could not be more different. “Oppenheimer” is a decades-spanning epic, a character study of one man and the world-altering weapon he gave to the rest of us. Murphy has described Nolan’s script as the best he’s ever read, and Nolan had reciprocated by calling Murphy’s performance “all-enveloping.” The director even likened Murphy to one of his heroes, Al Pacino, in his ability to play specifically to the camera.
While it helps that Murphy looks like Robert J. Oppenheimer, the thing that makes him ideally suited to the role is his unwavering vulnerability. In his strongest moments, the actor is still able to communicate a fragility and a fear of what’s to come. Nolan clocked it back in 2005 and has continued proving he knows how to maximize it. I can’t wait to see what these two get up to in the future, but right now, in the midst of “Oppenheimer” mania, I’m taking a moment to appreciate what they’ve given me so far.
Have you seen “Oppenheimer” yet? If so, what did you think? Do you think Cillian Murphy will be nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards? Please let us know in the comments section below or over on our Twitter account. Thank you!