Raw Meat: Tom Hardy’s Aesthetic

I wish that I could say that This Means War‘s (2012) worst crime is that it’s literally a forgettable film. Tragically, it commits far more heinous crimes against gender, the genre of the romantic comedy, and Tom Hardy’s career. I suppose if you makes the conscious decision to see a film directed by McG, the man who’s responsible for both The O.C. (2003-2007) and Pussycat Dolls Present: Girlicious (2008), you should know what you’re in for. I have watched terrible films in my time, and I have watched offensive modern romantic comedies (which pains my classic romcom-loving heart to no end) a-plenty, but I’ve seen none lately that seem to take as much pleasure in undoing both men and women as This Means War.

Silly and insensitive, there were times during the film when I felt that This Means War might actually be one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. But I can’t give it that much power. It’s simply dangerous on a larger level because it plays to a larger level, and the content is so devastating for modern romance, relationships, and gender identity. The trouble is, when the film pokes fun at gender, the methodology used harkens back to some strange 1950s’-era mythology that didn’t even exist then. The formulaic-ness of the film actually lends itself more to reinstating traditional sexual stereotypes and values instead of renegotiating them.

The characters are little more than caricatures. Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) is not very far from a classic woman-belongs-at-home-and-in-the-kitchen stereotype. Her job is, quite literally, to test appliances and household items. Every reference that she makes to herself or her friend Trish (Chelsea Handler) makes in regard to her is about how much she knows about items such as laundry detergent. In other words, she’s an expert on being a housewife. The “boys” (Tom Hardy plays Tuck, and Chris Pine plays FDR) are not very far from the standard men-in-the-working-world, the “twist” being that their “office” is the CIA. However, seeing that a good portion of the film actually does take place literally in their “office” (versus in the field – we only get sporadic shots of that) only reifies the working men-domestic female stratification taking place.

In addition to reinstating gender stereotypes, the film also seems to work on frat-boy standards. Apparently, it’s ABSOLUTELY FINE to manipulate a female. And playing a voyeur? Well, you don’t want to lose the “game” – aka the human being whom you have made a bet on with your friend. That’s how you pursue a modern functional romance these days, don’t you know? Bug her house, watch her every move, remove the mystery, and treat her as though she is the CIA job that you are supposed to be working on. It’s funny! Right, audience? No, not really. It’s offensive.

And this is the role they have gotten Tom Hardy to play? This is the role he’s gone for after Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) and Warrior (2011)?? Are you kidding me??

Perhaps he needed some levity. I get it. But still.

Tom Hardy is just. Not. That. Actor.

In the December, 2011 issue of Total Film, Gary Oldman said Tom Hardy is “quite a cocktail. Not everyone has that. But he’s beautiful like Paul Newman. [And] he’s got that aliveness. Like raw meat.” Indeed, it’s exactly this quality that has enabled Hardy to succeed in each role he attempts. His freshness and physicality are what make him the actor he is. Each time he steps into the frame, it’s virtually impossible to take your eyes off of him, and it’s not simply because he’s got Newman-level good looks. Tom Hardy possesses something that few people working in the cinema today have: theatrical intensity. His very presence is commanding, visceral, and hypnotic. Regardless of the part he plays, he brings a kind of instinctive corporeality to it; Tom Hardy makes the viewer remember and re-member the human body in all of its glories and faults by utilizing every part of his body in the roles he chooses.

Hardy’s gave his first notable film performance when he was twenty-three years old, when he appeared in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001). Shortly thereafter, he found himself sitting across a table from Patrick Stewart in Star Trek: Nemesis (2002), asking Captain Jean-Luc Picard about what it’s like to be human. While he had clearly made a name for himself by convincingly portraying his character in Star Trek and by breaking into the US film market, it was at this point that he decided to take a brief step back to reassess the manner in which he wanted to pursue his future. While having had a string of acting roles (ten films done before the age of twenty five), Hardy had also been involved in a terribly destructive relationship with drugs and alcohol and made the decision that this was the time for it to end, so he went to rehab. While many successful and bright young stars have suffered addiction, not many have been able to place passion and drive before their habits at such a young age. Hardy has been sober since 2003, and if his career was going well before, it has skyrocketed now.

Tom Hardy’s acting is singular and stems from his work in the dramatic arts. Trained at Drama Centre London (former alumni include people such as Colin Firth and Michael Fassbender), he brings his stage training to the screen, sometimes with such strength that certain directors have almost found him to be too “theatrical.”

Hardy’s life experience and relationship to his own body seem to be what guides much of his work. It might be said that his familiarity with his physiology, through his experience with addiction and recovery, has almost guided him to take a more tangible, gritty and concentrated approach to his acting. The films that he has done in the last few years make it transparent that his general goal (This Means War notwithstanding) is to reflect the most interesting elements of narrative cinema through physical expression. He uses his face, hands, eyes, and simple gestures to create a character’s identity, as well as his history. By this same token, he regularly alters his own physical appearance in order to give life to a role.

Similar to Christian Bale, whose own physicality has changed, based on the project he’s working on (for examples of changes in Bale’s physical appearance, see The Machinist (2004) and American Psycho (2000)), this is Hardy’s aesthetic. It works as his access point to all his scenes, characters, and pictures. His work on building each character seems to be delicate, healthy, and extremely well-maintained. Any physical training or body-alterations aimed towards the construction of one of his films must be carefully balanced, just as he, himself, must be carefully balanced. Indeed, it’s this factor that makes his acting so intense. Hardy’s aesthetic, coupled with his synthesis of character, is exactly what makes him seem so bloody and raw; he literally gives birth to a new character each time that he portrays, much like theatrical actors do, on a nightly basis. It is this aspect that makes him such a singular talent.

By tracing Tom Hardy’s body-cinema relationship, you can see that he centers much of his work within the realms of sexuality, power, and conflict. While those aspects do reveal themselves in his early films, Hardy best displays them in his more recent roles. Films like RocknRolla (2008), Bronson (2008), Warrior, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy clearly show the ways in which Hardy develops drama and expands different characters’ identities through his own physical authority.

Hardy is electric. While literally expanding his body mass to appear larger than life as a UFC fighter, Hardy’s Tommy Conlon is one of the smallest and most vulnerable figures in the whole of Warrior. Rikki Tarr seems “off kilter” and untrustworthy but Hardy’s mannerisms and pleading face lend the character a normality and picket-fence-type sensibility that is quite unusual in the motley crue depicted in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Stage actors are taught to take on a variety of different faces and costumes and trained to be entirely changeable. Tom Hardy has managed to do this with style and ease. While the audience may always be aware on some level that they are watching Tom Hardy because his physicality looms so large, the way in which he slips into each and every character he plays causes Tom Hardy to disappear and Handsome Bob to take over. While his physical stature may seem to lend itself to more dominant characters, Hardy seems to have an innate ability to see their fragile side and play it, making even severely hardened criminals like Michael “Charlie Bronson” Peterson seem to have a sensitive side.

While Tom Hardy has played everything from Bill Sikes in the BBC production of Oliver Twist (2007)—he excitedly called that character a combination of “Taxi Driver and Disneyworld”—to the guy crying over a sad film in a Kleenex ad, the one thing that he had not done until This Means War was perform in a film that was not worthy of his immense talents. While people may hem and haw on the quality of Star Trek: Nemesis and might quibble over the television or independent work he has done, the one thing that has never been in doubt about Tom Hardy is the depth of his character work and the lengths that he will go to in order to accomplish a role. Consistently interesting, Hardy’s representations of characters and situations that perhaps no one else would grasp make them that much more real. Many actors act a role, not many actors breathe it. Some may see this as method, but with Hardy it goes far deeper: it is organic and wild; you see it in his eyes, and he wears it on his flesh. Acting is his epidermis.

All actors have missteps. I’m going to count This Means War as Tom Hardy’s misstep. My advice: skip that film at all costs and grab anything else he’s done. You won’t regret it.

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