Vincent D’Onofrio. It’s a name I’ve known for years, but until now I’ve never really paid much attention. That’s about to change.
As you may have already guessed, I’ve been watching Netflix’s Daredevil, where D’Onofrio plays Wilson Fisk, better known to comics readers as the Kingpin. There are lots of good reasons to watch Daredevil. The acting is good—especially Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock—the fight scenes are carefully choreographed, the dialogue is witty, and the writers don’t shy away from probing serious issues like social justice and religion. But what has really stood out for me is the work of Vincent D’Onofrio.
It’s been a good year for actors playing villains on superhero shows. I may have had mixed feelings about Gotham, but I’ve loved watching Robin Lord Taylor’s smirking, psychotic, performance as the Penguin, and I’ve been particularly impressed by Tom Cavanagh’s quiet soulfulness on The Flash. But as Fisk, D’Onofrio gives one of the most fascinating performances I’ve seen all year, regardless of medium or genre.
D’Onofrio plays Fisk with a controlled stillness that actually reminds me of Marlon Brando. The first time I saw Brando in The Godfather, I spent much of my time just staring at the screen. I was fascinated with Brando’s performance, largely because I couldn’t figure out what he was doing. On the surface, he wasn’t doing anything—just sitting in a chair, rarely speaking above a whisper. He didn’t wave his arms or move around much, and he certainly didn’t provide lots of highly charged emotional displays. He just let Vito seep out through the most subtle of gestures—a raised eyebrow, an intake of breath, a twinkle in the eye.
Similarly, in Daredevil, D’Onofrio plays Fisk as a giant bundle of repressed emotions. Fisk apparently learned from his abusive father that emotional displays were “unmanly,” so he’s taken all of his emotions—rage, love, ambition, jealousy, insecurity, shame—and swallowed them whole. The result is a performance where the subtext of every scene is his epic battle to keep those emotions down. That’s why, when they do periodically erupt, they appear physically painful—as if Fisk were involuntarily vomiting all that swallowed anger, neediness, and love. Even his speech patterns seem awkward and forced, as if he were giving a legal deposition, vocalizing one word for every twenty that cross his mind.
According to the old adage, a good actor always plays a villain as if he were the hero. That’s certainly true with D’Onofrio. In fact, in one scene, after some people at a party are poisoned in what he believes to be an assassination attempt, I began to speculate about who “the bad guy” might be, forgetting that virtually every episode of the series had been dedicated to connecting Fisk to every terrible event befalling the people of Hell’s Kitchen. D’Onofrio plays every scene—even ones with horrifying acts of violence—as if he were fighting the good fight, doing what must be done to improve the city.
For me, watching D’Onofrio’s Fisk has been like making a new discovery. But he’s actually been acting for quite a while now. It makes me wonder what I’ve been missing.
I’ve known about him as far back as Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. That’s a remarkable film—particularly the first third of it, which focuses on marines suffering through basic training at Parris Island. Matthew Modine plays the main character—a sort of intellectual everyman—but the real acting sparks come from R. Lee Ermey, who plays an abusive drill sergeant, and D’Onofrio, who plays an inept draftee nicknamed “Private Pyle.” I haven’t seen the movie in years, but I remember D’Onofrio’s Pyle as distant, cold, and mysterious. It was the kind of role that is often played for sentiment, but D’Onofrio largely avoided the kind of warmth and charm that would’ve made that possible. The end result was a much more interesting performance that also reinforced Kubrick’s ongoing fascination with dehumanization in the modern world.
So, knowing that D’Onofrio had been working in high profile movies at least since 1987, I decided to look up his credits to see what I had been missing. I was surprised to find many things I had seen before—JFK, The Player, Ed Wood, Men in Black, and even Adventures in Babysitting—but I couldn’t remember him in any of those movies. I did have a vague memory of enjoying his Moriarty in a Sherlock Holmes film, but other than that, nothing on his list of credits jumped out at me.
Ah but wait. There was one film I remembered. The Whole Wide World (1996) is based on a book by Novalyne Price, and it tells the story of her Depression-era romance with a pulp writer named “Bob.” It’s a modest movie starring a pre-Jerry Maguire Renée Zellweger as Price. The whole project is very earnest and thoughtful—the kind of picture they used to call a “sleeper.”
I saw this movie back in the late ‘90s, and it’s stayed with me for three reasons: 1) “Bob” is actually short for Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan the Barbarian; 2) It ends tragically, as fans of Howard will already know; and 3) I was fascinated at the time with the guy who played Howard—Vincent D’Onofrio.
So I watched it again this past week and found that it holds up quite well. I’ll admit to not knowing much about Howard, although I find it amusing that his Wikipedia biography looks to be longer than Ernest Hemingway’s. But D’Onofrio’s performance is both mesmerizing and awkward—awkward in the best possible way. Unlike Wilson Fisk, Howard holds back none of his emotions. He’s constantly expressing himself, too loud and too uninhibited to seem entirely real.
By conventional standards, it’s as if D’Onofrio is bringing too much to the part, overwhelming it with his energy and emotion. It’s the sort of performance we often see from Jennifer Jason Leigh or from Daniel Day-Lewis as in Gangs of New York—like watching someone using garden shears to clip a picture out of a newspaper. It’s the sort of go-for-broke acting that few people do today.
Another actor cast as Howard might’ve given a more naturalistic performance, but it’s the overwhelming, inherently unrealistic quality of D’Onofrio’s Howard that makes it work. By not playing it safe, D’Onofrio gives us, not a guy we believe might’ve lived in Texas during the Depression, but rather, a guy who we believe could’ve actually written all those endless volumes of pulp stories.
Like Dean Moriarty in On the Road, D’Onofrio’s Howard is utterly devoid of irony. He’s not superior to Conan the Barbarian or intellectually removed from him in any way. He thinks Conan is cool, and when he describes a gratuitously violent sword fight or a scantily-clad woman, there is no sense of tongue-in-cheek. D’Onofrio’s Howard writes such things because he likes such things. His Howard is clearly well read and takes his writing seriously, but he approaches it with the energy and enthusiasm of an adolescent boy, fully convinced that what he’s doing could rival Shakespeare.
Even though there’s a lot of good, solid acting in film and television, what I’m seeing from D’Onofrio in these three films seems closer to real, transcendent artistry. All of which is a roundabout way of saying, he has my attention now.
 I don’t think I’m alone on this. With his shaved head, he bears a striking physical resemblance to Brando’s Colonol Kurtz in Apocalypse Now—so much so that in one episode, while talking with Ben Urich, he is filmed in the shadows with a tight shot that strongly echoes those iconic Brando scenes from Apocalypse Now.