Dern finally gets the career role he's been working for, and is liberated to focus on acting method and internalize what other actors may have felt the need to make explicit. The brilliance of his performance is not so much in his commitment to the behaviours of a senile old fool, but in his most underplayed reactions to hearing others describe him and his past. We get the sense of a man with an entire lifetime of history he wishes he could express, but which his deteriorating mind won't allow him to.
Sometimes hard to gauge these things at first blush, but after a couple of years to sit and mellow (though there's nothing mellow about this incendiary performance), it's clear that this is what may go down as the role of Leo's career. It tests his versatility as a performer far more than any of the anguished antiheroes whose brows he furrowed in physical/psychological pain, galvanizing a unique, entertaining anti-villain, but without letting the character's despicable nature get lost in his limber comic tone.
And at the centre of this harrowing saga, holding our gaze when we'd rather not watch, is Chiwetel Ejiofor. He delivers a haunting portrayal of an intelligent yet crucially naïve man; a man once blissfully blind to the plight of his race until he is dragged through all nine circles of hell in chains, losing something even more irreplaceable than twelve years of his life in the process. As he stares into oblivion, we can feel every pang of fear, uncertainty, and loss coursing through his heart.
Isaac gives a superb, weathered performance that evokes the guilt and remorse that runs deep beneath his character's prickly, arrogant exterior. And he does so with such unaffected subtlety and impressive musicality. It takes a special breed of performer to truly act through song, but when one hears Isaac strum his guitar and wrench out lyrics with true meaning behind them, it becomes clear that he's singing much more than words on a page; He's baring his soul.
In a performance that transcends his celebrity status, McConaughey completely disappears inside Ron Woodroof, compelling us to watch an unsavoury man vindicate his entire life on borrowed time. His transition from a homophobic drug profiteer to a devoted champion of a crucial cause is dramatic yet gradually handled. McConaughey makes us genuinely believe that this man – who so repelled us at the beginning – could undergo such a profound change in just seven years.
CHRISTIAN BALE in Out of the Furnace
TOM HANKS in Captain PhillipsETHAN HAWKE in Before Midnight
JOAQUIN PHOENIX in Her
ROBERT REDFORD in All Is Lost