Jeremy Renner had been kicking around Hollywood for a decade before he landed the role of Sgt. James in The Hurt Locker (2009), which brought him an Oscar nomination. Renner was in his late 30s by that point, a time when most major movie stars are already into the second waves of their careers. He had a business flipping houses. He did lots of theatre. Despite early “breakout” performances in Dahmer, S.W.A.T., and the bizarre Neo Ned, he remained at a certain level. His press has always been good, but he was like most actors in Hollywood: job-to-job, not famous, and doing his best in sometimes less-than-stellar material. When The Hurt Locker came out, the buzz was immediate and deafening. People would say to me before I had even seen the film, “Wait until you see that guy.” One of his earliest movies was Fish in a Barrel (2001), directed and written by Kent Dalian (who also starred). An ensemble movie, with its tongue firmly inserted in its cheek, it tells the story of four roommates who rob a jewelry store and in the process one of them (Remy, played by Renner) kills a cop. In between arguments over who left the refrigerator door open and where is the remote control, they go into a panic about their situation. In general, the ensemble’s work is pitched high (one of them appears to feel that the louder he is the better his performance). Cutting through the cacophony, Renner is already a revelation in the part of Remy. Although Remy is the trigger-happy hot-head, Renner dials him down, way down, so that he comes across as a semi-sleepy predator. He has a funny, chilling moment where he sits staring at a blank television (blank because the clicker can’t be found). To exert the energy to stand up and manually turn it on is beyond him. He emanates boredom and eternal patience at the same time: a true psychopath.
This particular quality has become Renner’s calling card; you can see it in various guises in most of his roles. He is watchful, alert, and yet bored on some deep existential level. His energy is often reminiscent of Robert Mitchum or James Cagney. He has the same ability to be both endearing and frightening, sometimes in the same moment. As Dahmer’s eponymous serial killer, Renner lurks in gay bars with an unassuming, unthreatening presence that explains why young trusting men would follow him. Like a tiger’s camouflage , in some scenes he barely seems to be there. Renner is good-looking, but when it suits the role he is able to mask his handsomeness with a slow serpentine flicker of his eyes, heavy disinterested eyelids, a slightly slackened mouth.
Sgt. James in The Hurt Locker is the other side of the Dahmer coin. The character has an uncanny gift for tunnel vision, and nerves of steel. Danger is what he needs to survive. Perhaps he wishes it were some other way, but, like an animal, he does not question his own nature. This is evidenced in the late scene between Renner and Anthony Mackie, when Mackie asks Sgt. James. “How do you do it?” A lesser actor would have made the choice to balk at the question initially, trying to “show” his toughness and invulnerability. Instead, Renner appears confused by the question itself. He really thinks about it. His eventual answer: “I don’t know.”
In 28 Weeks Later, Renner is thrilling as Doyle, the American soldier who leads the survivors to what he hopes will be safety. In a moment of chaos Doyle makes a devastating choice. He leans back into the car and says to the survivors, “I’ll meet you there.” You can see in his eyes that he knows otherwise. It was Renner’s performance in 28 Weeks Later that made me sit up and take notice. As I watched it, I thought to myself, “Who is that guy?” The short-lived television crime series The Unusuals starred Renner, and it showed his as-yet-untapped potential as a romantic leading man. I would love to see him go in that direction. He was, again, all nerves and focus in The Town (2010); his James Coughlin was a born criminal. Renner can move easily from hero to heavy. Depending on the context of the story being told, this quality of a man not questioning his own nature can reflect unbridled evil or steely heroics. It is a rare dual quality, one that few actors today approach. Russell Crowe came close, in the beginning of his career, with portrayals such as Hando the skinhead in Romper Stomper and Bud White, the muscle-bound, violently-inclined yet pure-of-motive detective in L.A. Confidential (1997). Crowe has since become invested in being liked as a person; he wants to play heroes and good guys, but consequently his persona has lost its edge. Jeremy Renner, in his roles thus far from Fish In a Barrel to The Hurt Locker, has displayed a compelling ferocity at full range, whether in acts of deadly violence, or blazing heroism. Now we all know who “that guy” is. We’re eagerly awaiting his next move. Sheila O’Malley writes about movies, books and actors at her site The Sheila Variations