Hollywood’s go-to scumbag: Ben Mendelsohn

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He’s been “that guy” for too long – we hope he soon gets a well deserved leading role

Any self-respecting movie goer should  have noticed by now that a lot of the endearing, and some not-so-endearing, scumbag characters in Hollywood movies these days have been portrayed by the same actor: Ben Mendelsohn. Whether he’s absolutely terrifying in Animal Kingdom or chewing scenery in The Dark Knight Rises, Mendelsohn is carving his niche, one shady supporting character at a time. He has been a fixture on Australian screens for decades, and it is about time he received the international recognition his talent and experience deserve.

Mendelsohn first appeared on Australian television in the mid-80s, coming to attention in The Henderson Kids (along with a young Kylie Minogue), a role which launched his career across the many soap operas clogging up the Australian airwaves during the decade. His feature debut occurred in the 1987 coming of age drama, The Year My Voice Broke, where he supported lead actor Noah Taylor – with whom he is often confused.

More television and film work came his way into the early 90s, including The Big Steal and Metal Skin, but it was in the 1996 film Idiot Box where he made a huge impression. In the film, Mendelsohn brings an anarchic energy to the character of Kev, one of two complete losers who plan an inevitably doomed heist. This was an early example of Mendelsohn exhibiting his ability to engender even the smallest amount of sympathy into the most badly behaved of characters.

Mendelsohn established himself as someone who could go that extra mile in order to create a fully realised character; an important skill when many supporting turns call for an actor to bring more to the table than screen time actually allows. As his career went on, the roles he was offered became more of the criminal and scumbag variety (he even played Rupert Murdoch) or strange, manic characters with a screw loose. However, it was his role as Pope in Animal Kingdom which finally brought him global recognition.


Pope is a force of nature and Mendelsohn plays him with such inner calm and nonchalance that this career criminal becomes the stuff of nightmares. And yet there is still that glimmer of sympathy in the darkness. It may be hard to see but it is still there. This is Mendelsohn’s skill writ large, an embodiment of the character so thorough it becomes hard to separate him from the actor. It is easy to see how this bravura performance was the stepping stone toward Mendelsohn’s current position as the best “that guy” working in Hollywood today.

Mendelsohn next appeared in fellow Australian Andrew Dominick’s excellent Killing Them Softly. The role of Russell, a darkly comic, idiotic drug addled loser, seemed written specifically with Mendelsohn in mind. Again, Mendelsohn imbues Russell with a sympathetic streak; sure he’s a violent, unrepentant criminal but he is also pitiful, and while he is to blame for his inevitable fate, there’s a sadness felt for a life wasted.

As Daggett in The Dark Knight Rises, Mendelsohn had the opportunity to ham it up, bringing the mania of some of his earlier roles to a bespoke-suited villain trying to take over Wayne Enterprises. And it was his follow up role as Robin in The Place Beyond The Pines that improved on the sympathetic criminals he had been portraying up to that point. He was a bank robber turned sage – Robin has seen it all and will see it all again. This time the sympathy came much more to the surface, as Mendelsohn played this career criminal with more of a world weariness than previous characters. He is wise and conniving enough to stay ahead of whatever life will throw at him next.

Ben Mendelsohn’s slate for 2014 is looking very busy, including Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut How To Catch A Monster, and rightly so. He has earned his place amongst the pantheon of “that guy” actors, alongside the likes of Lance Henriksen and Michael Parks. Actors whose job it is to appear for a scene (maybe two) and act the living hell out of it, leaving an indelible impression on the film and on the viewer, forever after.


Image: The Weinstein Company, inset image: Madman Entertainment

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