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Oscar Isaac’s Interesting Decade

Ten years of minor triumphs and a few big misses.
September 16, 2021
Oscar Isaac’s Interesting Decade
Oscar Isaac dancing in 'Ex Machina' (A24)

It was ten years ago this week that I first saw Oscar Isaac on the big screen and thought, “Wait . . . who is that?”

Nicolas Winding Refn’s hypnotic heist-flick-cum-tone-poem, Drive, was the immediate cause. Isaac’s role, Standard, is the sort of thankless plot contrivance that could easily have doomed the picture in the hands of a less capable actor. The Driver (Ryan Gosling) has fallen in love with Standard’s girl, Irene (Carey Mulligan), which becomes a problem when Standard is freed from prison at the start of the second act. In debt to some mobsters, the Driver agrees to serve as his wheelman on a job that’ll get him out of hock, a decision with dire consequences for most everyone in the movie.

Standard enters the film about 30 minutes in and leaves it around 30 later; from a purely functional point of view, he exists merely to move the story along. But Isaac might be the reason Drive endures. On paper, I’m not entirely sure the character makes sense—he’s brusque and antagonistic toward the Driver, as one might expect of a guy out of jail who sees the pretty-boy neighbor moving in on his girl; the Driver has no reason to help him escape his quandary aside from his desire to help Irene and her son avoid the criminals threatening Standard—but on film, Isaac is absolutely magnetic.

And it’s in that magnetism, that ability to sell the idea that Irene would still love Standard despite what he’s put them through, the notion that he could befriend the Driver and earn his trust and gain his skills for the dangerous job ahead, that the Driver himself would feel comfortable giving up his chance at love, understanding Irene’s happy and safe with Standard, that the film comes together. That it finds the emotional resonance needed to transcend the heightened-yet-sterile nature of Refn’s drama.

“Who is that?” I thought, sitting in the theater ten years ago. “I’ve seen him somewhere recently, but where?” It wasn’t until later when I got a chance to peruse IMDB that I realized what, precisely, I’d seen him in recently that had stuck in my mind: Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch. And while it’d be a little while before we’d get a chance to see what Isaac could really do in that film—there’s a fantastic song-and-dance number in the extended edition—the theatrical cut still drove home his ability to play an alternately charming and terrifying sociopath.

It’s not like Isaac started working in 2011—he has a bucket of credits prior to then, including a couple of decent roles in a pair of Ridley Scott films, Body of Lies and Robin Hood—but it was the first time he jumped out at me as someone in need of watching regardless of the project he was in.

More would come to realize this after his soulful, mournful, dour-yet-sly turn as the folksy singer-songwriter not-quite-destined for greatness in the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. Isaac’s Davis casts a wry eye on the folks (and the folkies) surrounding him; it’s a sad and sardonic performance leavened with a dash of the (admittedly dark) Coen humor, and Isaac easily embodies someone whose life is, simply, just not quite under control.

Working with Alex Garland, Isaac would embody someone who was in total control—or, at least, thought he was. Isaac’s Nathan in the intense, claustrophobic Ex Machina was something like Steve Jobs if Steve Jobs were jacked in addition to being a genius. Coolly mindful of mind and body alike, Nathan was not only a master manipulator but also a master programmer, creating an AI, Ava (Alicia Vikander), and asking sad-sack employee Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to test her limits.

Ex Machina would grant Isaac that ultimate quality of modern stardom—blessed memehood—and it was that bodily control that ensured his ascension. Equipped with a shaved head, bushy beard, and jumpsuit unzipped to the navel, Isaac dances with what can only be described as controlled aggression, the glare on his face harmonizing with the mysterious and blank-faced solicitousness of Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) as they gyrate against a red-and-blue blood-hued background.

That Isaac has spent so much of the last decade in big-budget crap that completely misuses his many talents isn’t a mystery—one has to pay the bills, after all—but it is mildly frustrating.

It’s not that he’s bad as Poe Dameron in the Star Wars sequels, exactly, it’s just that no one at Lucasfilm seemed to have any idea what to do with him. Isaac and John Boyega, playing Finn, had obvious Best Friends Energy, yet they’re kept almost entirely apart from one another in both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. Imagine how much more watchable The Last Jedi would be if Finn and Poe were gallivanting about the Casino planet rather than Finn and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) and if the whole Holdo (Laura Dern) subplot, rather than being used to put a damper on Isaac’s energy, were scrapped entirely. I vaguely remember J.J. Abrams having a slightly better sense of Isaac’s skills in The Rise of Skywalker, but I’ve also never felt the urge to revisit that movie and cannot imagine a circumstance in which I would.

And then there’s X-Men: Apocalypse, which features Isaac as the titular villain. It is one of the most colossal casting errors I’ve ever seen, this decision to take an incredibly good-looking and—perhaps more importantly, as my podcast partner Peter Suderman noted on Across the Movie Aisle recently—incredibly interesting-looking Oscar Isaac, festoon his face with makeup and prosthetics, and put him in a costume that renders him unable to move with the lithe force we’ve seen elsewhere. And then—then!—to take his voice and digitally alter it to give it a sense of otherworldly menace.

What is the point of hiring Oscar Isaac if you’re going to ask him to look nothing like Oscar Isaac, sound nothing like Oscar Isaac, and move nothing like Oscar Isaac?

Again, I don’t really fault Isaac for taking these parts; I hope he was handsomely compensated for the work. But I remain dumbstruck by the choices the directors of these films made and a little annoyed that we got fewer films like A Most Violent Year and Annihilation and Triple Frontier and last week’s The Card Counter than we otherwise might have been graced with. Indeed, I might have audibly cheered when Isaac, asked if he’d ever do a Disney+ Star Wars show continuing the adventures of Poe Dameron, aggressively yelped “NOPE.”

And yet, he’s said yes to another Disney+ project—a Marvel Cinematic Universe-based Moon Knight series. I’ll tune in, in part because the character is an interesting one and, potentially, a good fit for Isaac’s brooding side (for those of you who aren’t hopeless dorks: imagine Batman but with a supernatural tinge and you’ll have a decent sense of the character).

But mostly because I’m just down for whatever Oscar Isaac stars in.

Sonny Bunch

Sonny Bunch is the Culture Editor of The Bulwark. Before serving as editor-in-chief of the film site Rebeller, he was the executive editor of and film critic for The Washington Free Beacon. He is currently a contributor to The Washington Post and his work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, Commentary Magazine, The Weekly Standard, and elsewhere. He is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association