#18 — Kurt Russell as R.J. MacReady in The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)
Kurt Russell’s best performances are usually in characters that skew towards the everyman. Though I think some overly celebrate his self-consciously cool, tough guy roles in films such as Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China (both directed by John Carpenter), Russell actually does far better when there’s less affectation, less prompting to unleash cartoonish snarls on the way to bombastic action revelry. Quentin Tarantino, for example, had it completely backwards when he tried to make Russell his latest used-up movie star reclamation project in the lousy Death Proof half of Grindhouse. Russell is more suited to upended normalcy than grim, loopy superhuman nonsense. That’s why his last really strong work (to date, anyway) was in the flawed but still underrated 1997 thriller Breakdown, directed by Jonathan Mostow. As a man stalked by a malevolent trucker (the great J.T. Walsh), Russell constantly signals the flabbergasted desperation of his character, thrown into circumstances well beyond his reckoning. He would have been a great lead for Alfred Hitchcock.
Instead of the Master of Suspense, Russell got the inventor of the slasher flick, John Carpenter ((to be fair, Carpenter would take issue with that description). Including the TV movie Elvis, Carpenter cast Russell in five films, going a long way from shifting his career from Disney star afterthought to viable — albeit never wildly successful — leading man. Carpenter often misused Russell (Tarantino didn’t come with his bad idea from nowhere), but he also gave him the role that best revealed his strengths: R.J. MacReady in The Thing. The film was an adaptation of the John W. Campbell, Jr. novella Who Goes There?, but, knowing Carpenter’s devotion to his cinematic forebears, it was really beholden to the 1951 film The Thing from Another World, officially directed by Christian Nyby, but with Howard Hawks’s sandpaper fingerprints all over it. Carpenter directs it like a displaced western, the dusty plains replaced by a more foreboding snow-blown antarctic. Set in an isolated research station, the film is able to frame its horror around the mounting paranoia of a small community of men turning on each other, the sort of thing that Rod Sterling could bang out on his typewriter before a single cigarette burned down to the filter.
The scenario gives Russell something really interesting to ground his performance: a guy doing his job, a little bored by it, and now kinda pissed that one more pain in the ass problem has come to ruin another rotten day. MacReady is introduced drinking scotch and playing computer chess, taking retribution against his electronic adversary by emptying his drink into its circuitry after the indignity of checkmate. He’s got a short temper, but one that manifests in a remarkably contained manner. When he eventually formally takes charge as the station-dwellers are terrorized by shape-shifting aliens, it’s because he’s, as he puts it, “even-tempered.” I often think of Russell in this film as snappier than he is, in part because some of my favorite moments are when he essentially gets exasperated with the need to explain the unexplainable (when asked “And how can it look like a dog?,” he answers with escalating annoyance, “I don’t know how. ‘Cause it’s different than us, see? ‘Cause it’s from outer space. What do you want from me? Ask him!”). Through much of the film, though, he’s notably calm — admittedly, a very tightly wound version of calm — talking one or more of his fellow residents of the research station out of the next bad decision that will do more damaging that the interstellar marauders that started their troubles in the first place.
Russell eludes the two most commonplace downfalls of actors in horror movies. He doesn’t overplay the sense of terror, and he doesn’t refuse to take the material seriously. He instead plays MacReady’s overriding competency, his commitment to solving the problem laid before him. He’s freaked out by the things before him that defy his existing concept of how biology works, but they don’t leave him staggered (some other characters do shut down mentally, because there would absolutely be plenty of people who’d react that way) and jumping at shadows. He also benefits from a ready answer to the age-old horror movie question “Why don’t they just leave?” Miles of snowy tundra and damaged transports satisfy that query just fine. As others panic, MacReady is the one who needs to stay on top of his emotions, because that’s the only thing that will help him make the desired, necessary trip from Point A to Point B, with the latter being getting out of there with his blood still pumping and his life still his own. He also drinks plenty more of that scotch. Wouldn’t you?
Russell gives everything MacReady does authenticity. He plays the character as measured, self-assured, and committed to saving his own neck. He’s responding to an extraordinary situation in a realistic manner, and, importantly, in a way consistent with everything else that’s revealed about him and the way he interacts with his confined world. Too often roles in horror movies are reduced to cogs in the narrative machine, serving as placeholders between the jolts and gore. There are plenty of both of those in The Thing, but Russell doesn’t allow that to distract from the value of playing a fully thought out character.
About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander