Many of the crucial moments for Woody Harrelson's Capt. Tony Stone in "The Messenger" are punctuated by the toothpick he is worrying to death, as my Carolina grandmother would say.
So tiny, so easily crushed, yet it lives for long stretches between tightly clenched teeth as the captain muses over life, death, love, sex and the military with his new charge, Ben Foster's Sgt. Will Montgomery. It's a nice touch, the toothpick, subtle yet telling -- just one of the ways in which Harrelson manifests the captain's unrelenting intensity, using it to expose the emotional shadings to be found within the steely coil of control and repression that is Tony Stone.
Yet for all the emotional management going on, it is when he lets go that he leaves you barely breathing. It comes late in the film after Will's frontline confessions about buddies he failed. Left alone for a moment, we watch as great sobs break over Tony, a hard man brought low, tears for the lost men, for Will's pain, but mostly for himself -- a soldier without a battlefield to test him. All without a word.
With critical notice for his performance stacking up -- Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe nominations thus far and Oscar buzz, well, buzzing -- the role also serves as a reminder that Harrelson is one of the most underappreciated actors of his generation. It is the reason, as well, for my lament that richly demanding characters like Tony, ones that would keep Harrelson top of mind, don't come his way more often. Perhaps "The Messenger" will change that.
The problem is that we, and I mean that in the largest sense -- fans, filmmakers, the guys who greenlight movies -- simply don't tend to think of the 48-year-old in these terms. On the face of it, Harrelson is never an easy choice. Not handsome in the hunky way of Brad Pitt or possessing that sense of latent brilliance you see roaming around inside of Robert Downey Jr., what Harrelson has is an earthy Tom Sawyer aura, the Midwest version of the boy next door rather than the casting director's.
Even before the age of shameless self-promotion set in, Harrelson courted neither Hollywood nor the rest of us, leaving more of a vapor trail in his wake. He's better known as the free spirit championing pot, veganism, yoga and peace, with enough hemp in his wardrobe to tug a barge up the Mississippi. Charming in that "aw shucks" Texan way with a drawl that lingers though he left the tumbleweed and mesquite-tree desert of Midland for Ohio when he was 12. That he's a classically trained actor who writes the occasional play and tries to spend some time each year on stage, that he is dead serious about the craft of acting, are details easy to forget.
Whether by intention or default, he has spent a career more out of the spotlight than in it. But the last 12 months have been very good ones for Harrelson, and it leaves one to wonder if the tides of his career are shifting again. There were the serious dramatic demands of "The Messenger," the machine-gun-wielding insane fun of Tallahassee in "Zombieland," the conspiracy theorizing recluse of Charlie Frost in "2012" and the sweet soulfulness of his mentally challenged superhero in "Defendor," which surfaced at the Toronto Film Festival in September and is tentatively slated for release early this year.
All but the overly indulgent and quickly dismissed disaster epic "2012" were made with little more than hope and pocket change. With Harrelson's best work coming in smaller projects, there is always the worry (I've got a toothpick of my own) that too soon he will slip under the radar again.
It's not that Harrelson is not around. Over the years, he has had a pretty steady stream of roles, averaging around three films a year. Some challenged him, others looked good on paper, still others had disaster written all over them. Whatever the reason, the result is that he's a peak or valley, high-tide / low-tide kind of guy.
His best run yet was in the '90s: The Oscar nomination that came from his leading turn in the 1996 Milos Forman film "The People vs. Larry Flynt"; the trigger-happy mass murderer in a steamy mess with Juliette Lewis in Oliver Stone's treatise on violence and the media, 1994's "Natural Born Killers"; the heat that rose off the money-covered bed he shared with Demi Moore before everything falls apart thanks to Robert Redford's million-dollar bet in 1993's "Indecent Proposal"; and the endearing basketball con in 1992's "White Men Can't Jump" with Wesley Snipes.
But the valleys are deep and populated by Harrelson as the good ole boy or the easily duped -- "Doc Hollywood," "The Cowboy Way," "Surfer, Dude," "Wag the Dog," "EDtv," "A Prairie Home Companion." Even in the Coen brothers' "No Country for Old Men" in 2007, his bad guy was both good-natured and mostly good, at least compared to the gruesome rest.
What's his type?