American crime writer James Ellroy once described Texan-born screen star Woody Harrelson as a “wild ass” – a man with an “extremely cocky sense of self” who sees his life as “one big joke with him at the centre of it”. Mark Fraser bears all this in mind while looking at 10 of the actor’s most interesting movie appearances.
10. Wag The Dog (Barry Levinson, 1997)
Harrelson’s role in this astute political satire may be little more than a cameo, but it’s an important one given his character – the criminally insane army convict Sgt William Schumann – plays an integral part in an elaborate scheme concocted by a spin doctor (Robert De Niro) and a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to deflect attention from a US presidential sex scandal. At the end of the day it’s difficult to imagine any other person pulling this mischievous performance off so effectively.
9. No Country For Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2007)
If anyone should be capable of taking out the evil and resilient assassin Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardham) it’s the cool-as-a-cucumber Carson Wells (Harrelson), another hired gun who comes across him while on the same drug money retrieval mission in southern Texas. Unfortunately for Wells, there’s no honour amongst contract killers in Chigurh’s playbook. A brief, low key, and quietly menacing appearance.
8. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh, 2017)
As police chief of the titular town, Harrelson is good in the screen time he manages to get before his terminally ill character tops himself around the half way mark. Thinking about it, he probably could have easily also played the rather less disciplined, heavy drinking, socially maladjusted policeman Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) – a role that was rewarded with the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 2017.
7. The Messenger (Oren Moverman, 2009)
Although Harrelson delivers a solid performance as Captain Tony Stone of the US military’s casualty notification unit, his character ultimately plays second fiddle to Ben Foster’s Will Montgomery, an injured Iraq invasion veteran who finds himself under Stone’s command as he awaits his discharge papers. The film is essentially split into two parts – with the first being a sometimes harrowing and heartfelt account of human grief, and the second a less satisfying, but nevertheless interesting, buddy-buddy road movie.
6. Kingpin (Peter & Bobby Farrelly, 1996)
Lightweight, vulgar and corny perhaps, but Harrelson is hilarious in this profane comedy about a down and out alcoholic travelling salesman who tries to revive his thwarted bowling career through an awkward Amish protégé (Randy Quaid). While the actor got his first break in a television sitcom (Cheers), suggesting he has a dab hand when it comes to being funny, this movie’s sense of humour is in another ballpark.
5. Rampart (Oren Moverman, 2011)
The world starts caving in for corrupt LAPD cop Dave Brown (Harrelson) after he oversteps the mark at work a few too many times. His peculiar domestic arrangement is also collapsing, and it’s only when his daughter Helen (Brie Larson) spells it out for him (she calls her father a dinosaur – a classic racist, bigot, sexist, womanising, chauvinistic, homophobic misanthrope) that he becomes a little contrite and confesses to the authorities about a past crime, albeit while trying to negotiate his way out of a murder beef. In some ways this self-assured performance of a train wreck protagonist is similar to that of Harvey Keitel in Abel Ferrara’s 1992 Bad Lieutenant insofar as both play crooked cops who dominate every scene they are in.
4. Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer, 2009)
If Harrelson has ever lived up to the above-mentioned praise bestowed upon him by James Ellroy, it’s in this movie.
3. The People vs Larry Flynt (Milos Forman, 1996)
One of the big moral dilemmas posed by this biopic is the fact it portrays pornographer Larry Flynt (Harrelson) – a man whose work well and truly ventures into brutally sexist and misogynistic territory – as a champion of free speech. All things considered it ended up being a perfect vehicle for the actor, garnering him his first Oscar nomination (for Best Actor).
2. LBJ (Rob Reiner, 2016)
It’s arguable that Harrelson’s sympathetic (and some would argue sanitised) portrayal of US President Lyndon Johnson is comparable to Gary Oldman’s take on British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour the following year. Unlike Oldman, though, he didn’t get an Oscar for his efforts – in fact he wasn’t even nominated for one, which is a crying shame.
1. Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994)
Back in October 1994, while promoting the then just-released Natural Born Killers (NBK), Harrelson (who plays mass murderer Mickey Knox) told Premiere’s Corie Brown that he was “very much in the head space of the character”, adding: “I went into my own shadow, my own rage. All of this stuff was opened up that I’d been repressing.” Brown then noted that the actor’s father Charles was a convicted murderer (with one of his victims being US District Judge John H Wood Jnr in 1979). Later in the article, NBK director and co-writer Oliver Stone indicated he could feel Harrelson’s “genetic violence”, saying: “I looked in his eyes the moment I met him and knew this was a man who has violence in him, and he was starting to be in touch with that.”
Written and compiled by Mark Fraser
Over to you: what are your top 10 Woody Harrelson films?
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