#34 — Mira Sorvino as Dr. Susan Tyler in Mimic (Guillermo del Toro, 1997)

It was not, according to entertainment industry conventional wisdom, the right sort of project for a freshly minted Oscar winner. A horror film directed by a Mexican filmmaker in his English language debut — and only his second feature — the plot involved oversized, strangely evolved insectoid creatures running roughshod across the most dismal corners of the New York City subway system. Seeing the project through required poking around in burbling mucus, sprinting away from swooping monsters, and being coated a film of greasy soot that signaled a slog of great duress.

Like all the best performers in movies about bloodthirsty supernatural critters, Mira Sorvino approaches her role in Guillermo del Toro’s Mimic with the same intellectual rigor and measured dignity she would bring to a solemn biopic. She plays Dr. Susan Tyler, an entomologist who develops a genetically enhanced cockroach in an effort to combat the spread of a deadly disease. Once the epidemic is averted, the hybrid insects were supposed to die off. Instead, they endured and evolved, posing an immediate predatory threat unless Susan and a hastily assembled ragtag band of compatriots — including her husband, Peter (Jeremy Northam), and a transit authority worker (Charles S. Dutton) — can knock out the growing hive.

Sorvino passes the fundamental test of playing the scenes of grave danger with a level of distraught worry that feels accurate. Valuably, she brings a layer of cognitive insight — a scientist’s impulse to figure out the cockeyed scenario even as she’s trying to wriggle out of it — to these moments. As the character builds towards self-preserving acts of heroism, she also shows how resolve can be coupled with uncertainty, even outright fear.

More than that, Sorvino brings unfussy conviction to the smaller parts of the character’s story running parallel to the mayhem.  She responds to the disappointing results of a pregnancy test with a face that shades over in disappointment and just the slightest hitch in her voice. When Susan endures flaring sexism inherent diminishing her importance in a heated conversation, Sorvino wears the contained exasperation with a weary grace. Her very posture signals an ongoing and unwelcome comfort. This happens all the time. Giving unflagging attention to little beats like these are the difference between merely serving the mechanics of the plot and developing a fictional person whose life believably extends beyond the boundaries drawn by the opening and closing credits.

Recently, del Toro noted Mimic represents his sole unpleasant experience as a film director. Some of that compromise is evident in the film, as it largely lacks the beautifully dark-souled lyricism that is his signature. It sometimes feels as if it could be the work of just about any director-for-hire, a charge that can’t be leveled against any other film, flawed or not, in del Toro’s history. There are portions of it, though, in which del Toro’s style and sentiment break through, largely in the fascination with the hyper-natural creatures. It’s a giant bug movie, but he takes it seriously. Proving she’s a good match for the director’s sensibility, Sorvino does, too. As she did — and does — across her career, Sorvino honored the world of the film, bringing herself to it with relentless emotional honestly.



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
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move
#31 — Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight
#32 — Essie Davis in The Babadook
#33 — Ashley Judd in Heat

One thought on “Greatish Performances #34

  1. Dan, this is really interesting. I just discovered this post (after enjoying your recent one on Mira Sorvino and then digging into the backlog of posts in this series), and it seems I wrote something quite similar about Lopez just a few weeks ago. Here’ my piece; you’ll find that it mirrors your opinion that there was something quite special about Lopez’s early career acting performances, something that sadly seems lost in the years since.


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