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Colin Farrell: The Man of a Thousand Second Chances

The latest installment of Misleading Men, the series where we look back at actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment

We’re in the middle of a Colin Farrell renaissance. In the last 18 months, the 41-year-old actor has received some of the best reviews of his rollercoaster career, impressing in the dark satire The Lobster, the Civil War feminist drama The Beguiled and the psychological horror film The Killing of a Sacred Deer. “Colin Farrell and the Art of the Small Comeback” is how a recent New York Times profile put it, positioning him as a former bad boy who hit bottom, cleaned himself up and returned triumphant and properly humbled.

If all that stirs a little déjà vu, it’s not just you. It’s been a regular feature of the entertainment press over the last several years to anoint this moment as the one when Farrell finally earns his shot at redemption:

  • In 2015, The Daily Beast and Esquire each published pieces about Farrell’s role on the second season of True Detective, evaluating whether the acclaimed HBO series signaled his comeback.
  • The previous year, Bustle anointed 2014 as Farrell’s time for a comeback because he was set to appear in a bunch of high-profile films — everything from the Mary Poppins origin story Saving Mr. Banks to an adaptation of the classic August Strindberg play Miss Julie.
  • In 2012, I was on the Farrell comeback bandwagon, pointing to his appearance in the forthcoming big-budget remake of Total Recall as a sign that he’d been welcomed back to the land of Hollywood blockbusters after years in the commercial wilderness.
  • Even back in 2008, British GQ was using comeback, mentioning his acclaimed work in In Bruges and Cassandra’s Dream as proof that Farrell was turning things around: “It seems overblown to talk about a comeback for a 31-year-old, but he is certainly working less (in a good way) and taking more care over the projects he selects.”

The longer Farrell’s career goes along, the more we want to believe that he’s finally finally become the actor we know he can be. We seem perpetually convinced that he’s just one terrific role away from a breakthrough. And because he never quite gets there — constantly putting together a few good roles and then taking a step or two back — we remain engaged in a delicate, emotionally fraught dance with him. Every performance he gives — even as the aloof, opaque heart surgeon in the new The Killing of a Sacred Deer — is flecked with poignancy. He’s a very good actor who, somehow, can’t sustain greatness for too long.

Born in Dublin in May 1976, Farrell grew up in an athletic family — his dad and his uncle both played soccer, as did he — but as a child, he got hooked on movies, especially after he saw E.T. “I cried and I just loved it,” he recalled in 2011. “I was taken away completely to another world. It inspired in me all sorts of thoughts, emotions, and it has stayed with me very much.” Looking for a direction as a kid, he wondered if performing might be for him. “I was drinking and smoking and getting lazy,” he said, “and I thought, maybe it’s time to try acting and see if I like it.”

He studied at Dublin’s Gaiety School, where he began to sow a reputation as an actor who was clearly going places. Olivia Wilde, who’s about eight years younger than Farrell and also attended Gaiety, admitted, “I know it sounds funny, but Colin Farrell was seriously like God to my whole class at the Gaiety. … We had a photo of him … in the studio and there were pictures of him all over the school.”

Farrell landed his first major film role in 1999’s The War Zone, but he got on American audiences’ radar a year later as the star of Tigerland, a low-budget war drama in which he appeared alongside several other up-and-coming actors in this study of a group of soldiers training to be shipped off to Vietnam. The film launched Farrell, who was perfect as the rebellious young smart-ass whose brashness belied a sensitive soul.

After Tigerland, Farrell parlayed his swagger, earnestness and good looks into a string of big film roles, setting in motion what would be a pattern for the next 20 years. For every Tigerland, he’d do a Hart’s War or The Recruit, utterly disposable movies that weren’t commercially successful or any good. But then he’d show up in something great like 2002’s Minority Report, which found him teaming with E.T. director Steven Spielberg, stoking the contention that he had the goods as a serious actor. The optimism didn’t last long, though: When he starred in Oliver Stone’s woebegone 2004 biopic Alexander, Farrell hit a low point, losing the shine of the Next Big Thing that all young actors need to remain hot in a fickle industry. “I was due a kick in the arse. I really, really was,” Farrell told The Times. “Because I was annoying. I had so much, so quick. I was so cocksure.”

In subsequent years, he’d continue to do good work, like in Michael Mann’s underappreciated big-screen version of Miami Vice, but those films barely made a dent at the box office. If anything, his tabloid antics were what made him notable. He became known as a partier. He went to rehab. He had a reputation for womanizing. (In 2014, the New York Post compiled a list of his conquests, including Elizabeth Taylor, Britney Spears and Angelina Jolie.) But no matter what a mess his personal life was, there seemed to remain a brooding sweetness to his public persona that never came across as mean — he didn’t feel surly, violent and contemptuous like a Russell Crowe. And so, it was easy to always hope for the best for the guy.

Whether by design or luck, Farrell’s roles after he got sober played into our affection for him. For In Bruges, which won him his Golden Globe, he played a hitman who is tormented by a tragic mistake he made, while in Cassandra’s Dream, he gets roped into a murder that, he quickly realizes, he can’t forgive himself for committing. These characters were haunted, miserable, struggling for absolution — almost as if he was apologizing for his previous arrogance and wild-man behavior.

And in the press, he was forthright about getting sober. “I don’t take it for granted and I don’t undermine how difficult my journey to getting sober was,” he said in 2014, “but now I’m in a really different life and I don’t miss it. I’m very lucky in that respect because I know people who have had a longer period of sobriety than me and they still miss it every day and it’s a struggle for them.” In The Times, he talked about how fatherhood had changed him. (His sons are 14 and 8.) “I’m just ready to step away from all of it,” Farrell said about how busy he’s been in recent years. “I really just want to go on a hike and see my boys and go on a road trip.”

That accruing of good will has, naturally, inspired several “Is such-and-such movie Farrell’s comeback?” pieces in recent years. Any time he’s involved with a film that carries a certain pedigree — a change-of-pace comedic role in Horrible Bosses, the Cannes-winning indie hit The Lobster — journalists jump the gun to assert that he’s finally ready to become the acclaimed superstar his early promise suggested. The media loves doing this: Whether it’s Matthew McConaughey or Michael Keaton, journalists relish declaring that supposed past-their-prime actors are “back.” There’s a prodigal-son quality to our attitude toward wayward talents, and Farrell embodies it better than most because, lately, he’s focused on muted, internal performances, which suggest an actor who’s not interested in flash but, rather, the seriousness of his craft.

Even if Farrell has put aside childish things, however, his artistic pattern has remained. He was fun as a lout in Horrible Bosses but a disappointment in remakes of Fright Night and Total Recall. He reunited with his In Bruges filmmaker for Seven Psychopaths and was enormously appealing — only to follow it with up the dreary Dead Man Down, Saving Mr. Banks and Winter’s Tale. He even had the bad fortune of starring in the season of True Detective that everybody hated.

And yet, that said, there’s a case to be made that, maybe, just maybe, he’s finally stumbled onto a hot streak. He was terrific in The Lobster, ably playing a sad-sack trying to find love (or else) in a dangerous future society that demands that all people be paired off. The Beguiled traded on his sex appeal and roguish demeanor as a wounded soldier taken into the care of a group of women, his actual intentions never entirely clear. And in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, made by Lobster filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, he portrays a stoic doctor hiding a secret that could have tragic consequences for his family.

Each performance is controlled and slightly mysterious, and each character provokes a mixture of sympathy and suspicion in the viewer. In all three movies, we have to decide if we can trust him — in all three, his character seems to be in the weaker position in comparison to those around him, but we’re not sure if they don’t deserve their plight. It’s a terrific metaphor for the anxious, burned-before relationship we have with Farrell.

Of course, as good as those three films are, he also appeared in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which left zero impression. And coming in 2019 is Tim Burton’s live-action Dumbo, the sort of big studio movie that, in the past, hasn’t done him many favors. But then you balance those against this winter’s Roman J. Israel, Esq., where he’s quite good alongside Denzel Washington, and next year’s Widows, the first film from director Steve McQueen since his Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave.

And so, per usual, it’s impossible not to give him a second chance.