Ben Foster has made a career out of portraying complicated men with some relationship to trauma, in as quiet and subtle way as possible. We delve deep into the obscure, the under-rated, and the best work of his career and look at what makes it great. This is an excerpt from the ebook Leave No Trace: A Special Issue. Get your copy here.
Ask most people about Ben Foster, and they’ll tell you he was the master of scenery chewing in Hell or High Water (2016), the creepiest of the creepy in Alpha Dog (2006), or the unexpectedly compelling villain in 3:10 to Yuma (2007). He made his name playing weirdos and creeps, but take a closer look at his entire filmography, and it’s impossible to pin him down. He started in comedy in the ‘90s, then pivoted to darker parts in the ‘00s. Somewhere along the way, he became a B-movie action star, while managing to quietly do some of the very best work in excellent but under-seen films. Foster is such a versatile actor he keeps getting typecast as something different.
Every few years, someone declares that Ben Foster is breaking out — again. He’s even won awards for doing so twice — three years apart: the Young Hollywood Breakthrough Performance Award for Alpha Dog (2006) and the Gotham Breakthrough Actor for his leading role in The Messenger (2009). This trend continues almost a decade later, with his Independent Spirit Award for Hell or High Water and the many critics astounded at Foster’s subtle performance in Leave No Trace. People keep thinking Foster is breaking out because they keep disregarding the weight of his previous work. In reality, Foster’s performance in Debra Granik’s latest film represents a culmination and continuation of the diverse work he’s been doing throughout his career.Every few years, someone declares that Ben Foster is breaking out — again.Click To Tweet
Ever since Liberty Heights (1999) — and more obviously in The Laramie Project (2002) and Bang Bang You’re Dead (2002) — Foster has been consistently interested in exploring trauma from every facet: as a helpless witness, as a perpetrator, and as a person experiencing or dealing with the aftermath. Whether playing a baddie or a hero, Foster finds complex psychological motivations for his characters in each part, which keeps the performances real even when the dialogue or situation isn’t. By letting his characters be emotionally open, Foster reveals to the viewer what his characters may not understand about themselves.
I suspect that instinct is tied to him getting his start in comedy, which requires an actor to be utterly vulnerable because the humour often relies on characters’ denial or cluelessness: first as the star of the Disney Channel TV series Flash Forward (1996–1997), about a lovably awkward teenager falling in love (without realizing it) with his neighbour and childhood best friend; and then, in films like Get Over It (2001), which find the comedy in Foster’s character’s foibles, his cluelessness about the world when opening his heart to a girl.Many of Ben Foster's characters deal with their trauma by defaulting to — and sometimes even interrogating — conventional masculine traits and behaviours.Click To Tweet
Foster has since translated his comedic expertise into roles of great dramatic heft. Many of his characters deal with their trauma by defaulting to — and sometimes even interrogating — conventional masculine traits and behaviours. Foster has rarely made films with masculinity as the subject, but his performances often tend to serve as an exploration of the links between trauma and traditional male roles.
Liberty Heights (1999) and Ben Foster’s Jewish masculinity
Ben Foster’s first leading role on film was in Liberty Heights (1999), a coming-of-age story about Jewish identity — and specifically, Jewish masculinity — set amid rampant anti-semitism in 1950s Baltimore, right when schools were being integrated. When we first meet Foster’s 17-year-old Ben, he is staring at a sign at the local pool that says: “No negroes, dogs, or Jews.” This sets him on a path to reject and question his heritage: he dresses up as Hitler for Halloween, arguing that WWII is in the distant past; and he falls for a black girl (Rebekah Johnson) at school, almost as an unconscious attempt to escape his own community and reality. But the two forge an unexpected bond over their experiences as outsiders; they have deep and lengthy conversations, and share a love for music and comedy. Meanwhile, his older brother (Adrian Brody) chases after a very rich and blond shiksa, convinced that the grass is greener on the other side. Both boys eventually realise that matters of love and identity are much more complicated than they assumed, and Liberty Heights ends on them embracing rather than rejecting their Jewish roots.
Liberty Heights should have been a star-making role for Foster: his Ben is the perfect mix of comic lead and pathos. Ben’s youthful earnestness and absolute oblivion about how he’s being perceived is what makes him at once a lightly comedic character and incredibly real. Most importantly, director Barry Levinson is on the same wavelength as Foster, because Ben’s naivety is both the butt of the joke and what makes us love him. In the film’s funniest scene, Ben decides to dress up as Hitler for Halloween — at a time when the Holocaust death toll is still being calculated; his parents and friends are horrified. But Foster’s Ben never even cracks an ironic smirk. He’s frustrated that nobody appreciates how much effort went into his costume — he travelled all the way across town to find authentic boots. Foster can see why the costume is insensitive in a way that Ben can’t, and his straight-faced performance tells us how much Ben still has to learn about the world.
Foster’s wide-eyed openness is key to Ben’s character. Ben is charming and charismatic in part because he isn’t wholly self-conscious. When he listens to records with Sylvia in her room, he spontaneously jumps on the bed to start dancing, and invites her up to dance with him. When she mindlessly touches his leg to reach across him for a record, and he accidentally ejaculates, he just sits there staring surprised at his wet crotch. Rather than running away in embarrassment, he has a calm and civil conversation with her about it, before leaving to clean himself up. He’s as surprised as she is.Foster's Liberty Heights performance only works because he takes Ben’s principles and passions as seriously as Ben himself does.Click To Tweet
When Sylvia’s father drives Ben home, angry at discovering his daughter with a white boy, Frank Sinatra comes on the radio. Sylvia’s father pushes him to get out of the car, but Ben, oblivious, is completely engaged in the music, mouthing the words and closing his eyes in concentration. “You don’t walk out on Frank,” he explains confidently to his flabbergasted companion. It’s a funny moment, and strangely sweet. Foster’s performance here only works because he takes Ben’s principles and passions as seriously as Ben himself does, doubling down on the self-seriousness and ingenuousness that makes Ben charming. It’s a feat: a self-serious performance of unselfconsciousness.
Ben Foster explores the effects of trauma: Bang Bang You’re Dead (2002) and The Laramie Project (2002)
In 2002, Ben Foster’s fascination with trauma took on a sharper focus in two films about violence: the otherwise forgettable school shooting TV film Bang Bang You’re Dead (2002); and HBO’s The Laramie Project (2002), a film adaptation about the play that chronicled the famous gay bashing murder.
The Laramie Project is a film so packed full of movie stars you’d be hard pressed to name them all. Yet Foster delivers one of its most memorable performances as Aaron, the student who discovered the body of Matthew Shepard after Shepard was killed in a gay-bashing. Foster barely moves a muscle while his Aaron recounts his story, too moved and horrified by what he saw to do more than think on it. There’s a haunting in his eyes, which get misty at the thought of the horrors he witnessed. His body is curled up in a ball, hunched over his knees, as he sits on his bed in the corner of his room. We can see in that moment that the experience of finding Matthew has made him retreat from the world.In Bang Bang You're Dead, Ben Foster's Trevor feels like a real person in a film full of cardboard cutouts. He won a Daytime Emmy for the role.Click To Tweet
The cliche-ridden TV movie Bang Bang You’re Dead (2002) earned Foster a Daytime Emmy for his portrayal of teenage Trevor, a victim of bullying turned potential school shooter. Most of the film’s dialogue reads like an after-school special. Its world is populated by stock characters: the inspirational teacher, the insensitive parents, the brutal cool kids, the cute but sensitive girl. But every time Foster is on screen, he’s magnetic and fully real.
When Foster’s Trevor delivers a monologue about how he’s been hurt and ignored, there’s such pain in voice, such emotional vulnerability in his every word. Trevor feels like a real person in a film full of cardboard cutouts. It felt like emotional whiplash: Foster moved me to tears when just moments ago, I was rolling my eyes at the film’s plotting. Foster nails the anger of a boy who’s been bullied and misunderstood, chastised rather than supported, desperate for an outlet for his pain but unable to find one. You don’t forgive him his near-violent tendencies, but you do understand why he would be driven to them.Ben Foster is interested in the cycle of trauma — the way traumatized people inflict trauma on others, sometimes accidentally.Click To Tweet
These two performances mark the beginning of Foster’s continued interest in the cycle of trauma — the way traumatized people inflict trauma on others, sometimes accidentally. He started by playing victims and witnesses to trauma, and he later looked at how people become traumatized, through war or hardship, and how people cope with the effects of that trauma.
Creeps and villains: Hostage, Alpha Dog, 3:10 to Yuma
Next, Ben Foster started targeting roles as the perpetrator of violence rather than the witness — and he was so good at it, he began getting typecast. His first psychopathic baddie was Mars in the otherwise laughably bad Hostage (2005), a Bruce Willis movie so poorly written that it hinges on the hero finding a copy of a DVD where criminal secrets are stored. Yet Foster brings such depth to the character that he wouldn’t be out of place in a much more sophisticated film. His performance is small, subtle, and reined in whereas the film is anything but.
Foster plays Mars as a damaged young man desperate to connect, but incapable of doing so humanely. When he pulls the teenage girl he’s holding hostage into a room alone, we expect sexual violence. What he does, instead, is more insidious and creepy, asking her questions as if they’re on a date. She’s tied up, and he inches close to her, tenderly offering her an indirect drag of his cigarette: he blows the smoke into her mouth. She’s visibly confused because it’s predatory and sweet at the same time. In Foster’s hands, there’s nothing calculated about Mars’ kindness; he’s a broken boy desperate for a human connection. That’s the genius of Foster’s performance. While another actor might match his performance to the size of the film’s explosions, and leer or shout or chew the scenery, Foster reins it in. The contrast between Mars’ affect and the film’s pyrotechnics makes Foster’s performance all the more chilling. It’s only when his face is bloody and the house is on fire that Foster brings his affect up even a notch.While another actor might leer or shout, matching his performance to the size of the film's explosions, Ben Foster reins it in.Click To Tweet
If Hostage initiated Foster’s career as the go-to creepster, the indie cult hit Alpha Dog (2006) — shot during the press tour for Hostage, which featured this amazing Conan interview — cemented him as the master of it. His Jake Mazursky, a drug-addled Nazi skinhead prone to violent outbursts, was mannered and over-the-top because the character himself was turned up to eleven. Foster never goes in for the easy ham, but it’s an exaggerated role that requires a biggish performance. Critics can almost be forgiven for mistaking Foster’s work for scenery chewing — few actors manage to walk the thin line between an unmannered performance of a strange character and an affected, over the top performance to convey that strangeness.
Still, Foster only started getting serious critical accolades with his follow-up baddie in 3:10 to Yuma (2007), a beloved performance that is too often mistaken as peak Foster Scenery Chewing. Foster’s outlaw Charlie Prince took after his smarter, more infamous boss, Ben Wade (Russell Crowe). Prince didn’t have the wit of Wade, but he shared the rockstar glamour. What Prince learned from Wade is that you don’t have to go big to be threatening. There’s a swagger to the way he walks, but everything else is very small and controlled, straight-backed and deliberate — which is what makes him scary. Foster makes a meal out of taking his time, pausing for effect, and going small when others would go big. In one scene, Prince threatens to kill a man if he doesn’t reveal what he knows. It’s Prince’s big showcase; in another actor’s hands, he could have become shouty, throwing his weight around. What Foster does is much more powerful: looking down, with absolute stillness and a whisper, he lets his prey know he needn’t make a show of his power.
The Messenger and the traumatized soldier
At this stage, Ben Foster was enough of a known entity within the industry to start getting some of the richest parts of his career. His starring role in The Messenger (2009), his first lead since Liberty Heights, feels like a turning point because Foster’s subtle shifts in performance are finally the subject of the film. It’s also the film most closely linked to his Leave No Trace character — his first role (of several) about a traumatized soldier.
In Oren Moverman’s quiet and understated The Messenger, Foster plays Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery, an American soldier recently returned from Afghanistan. He serves the remainder of his tour stateside as a notification officer, informing civilians of the death of their loved ones on active duty. Montgomery is lonely and detached: unable to discuss the horrors he witnessed, angry about the injuries he suffered, and alienated from his loved ones by his absence. The film follows him as he gets used to his new and difficult job and struggles to connect both with the people he’s notifying and with potential romantic interests.
At the beginning of The Messenger, Montgomery falls back on acting out conventional masculine stereotypes because he’s trying to protect himself from being hurt by the woman he loves. His ex-girlfriend, now in a new relationship, visits for an evening to welcome him home. Their sex is more mechanical than emotional. When they go to dinner afterwards, he barely looks at her, keeping his eyes on his plate as he devours his food and she pontificates on her feelings about marriage. He mostly lets her monologue, interjecting only with the occasional angry, passive aggressive remark. He’s playing the heartless macho guy because to show her his own vulnerability, his heartbreak from losing her, would be too painful. Montgomery is experiencing powerful emotions that Foster renders even more meaningful by reining them in.
As a notification officer, Montgomery sees strangers at their most emotionally vulnerable. This could make him hard, but instead, it jars him and pushes him to open up and try to connect with others. When Montgomery and a military friend pick up a pair of women, the friend goes straight to the sex; Montgomery sits outside with his date, first talking, then caressing her hair as she falls asleep in his lap. It’s a striking contrast to his interaction with his ex-girlfriend. His desire for intimacy really comes alive when a woman he notifies about her husband’s death, Olivia, responds not with malice but a calm ‘thank you,’ acknowledging the difficulty of his job. Her understanding of him makes him want to understand her, and they tentatively strike up a relationship.
Montgomery in The Messenger speaks more than Leave No Trace’s Will, but he’s not exactly voluble, so we see his desire to connect by watching Foster react in silences. Director Moverman will hold the camera on Foster in a scene where he isn’t talking, and the change in his physicality tells us everything. In a two-shot, standing opposite each other in Olivia’s kitchen, Olivia tells Montgomery how being in the army made her husband angry and different. Montgomery recognizes this in himself, and it startles him: he inches away from her and gradually straightens, detaching because he’s scared. But it doesn’t last because connecting matters more to him. Slowly, he slouches back down to her height, to comfort her and show her he understands how she’s feeling.The Messenger's Montgomery speaks more than Leave No Trace's Will, but he's not exactly voluble, so we see his desire to connect by watching Foster react in silences.Click To Tweet
Changing his position to meet the person he’s talking to at their level is something Montgomery starts to do more and more — most strikingly when he notifies a woman who collapses, and he kneels down to talk to her at her level, to offer support and warmth. The only way to deal with his hurt is to connect with other people who are hurting.
Products of their environment: A Streetcar Named Desire (2014) on stage and Ben Foster’s subsequent films
While Montgomery snaps out of his toxic masculinity fairly quickly, Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (2014) leans into his aggressive wife-beating demeanour the more threatened he becomes. Ben Foster played Stanley in Benedict Andrews’ modern staging, first at the Old Vic in London and then at St Ann’s Warehouse in New York City a year later. “Getting to do that twice was… I never felt luckier,” Foster confessed to me. “I mean Tennessee [Williams], you don’t get to beat him, you just get to climb him every night. Incredible. It’s church. His words are church.” As good as Foster’s line readings in A Streetcar Named Desire were, it was his physicality that was revelatory, giving an entirely fresh take on the character that made me understand him afresh — with more depth than Marlon Brando’s famous cinematic portrayal.Ben Foster's physicality was completely revelatory, giving an entirely fresh take on Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire.Click To Tweet
In Foster’s hands, Stanley is an overgrown child prone to blind rages, a symptom of his untreated trauma as a war veteran rather than a baser violent streak. Where Brando’s Stanley in the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire is the masculine ideal, muscles glistening in his wife-beater t-shirt, Foster’s Stanley is an unglamorous working class man. He wears Hawaiian shirts and cargo pants that he’s constantly pulling up in an effort to prove his respectability.
When Foster’s Stanley beats his wife, Stella (Vanessa Kirby), in anger, he blacks out. He has to be carried into the bathtub by his friends, who pour cold water on him to wake him up. His apology to Stella, given on his hands and knees in a posture that is practically “ape-like” — the term Blanche uses to describe him to Stella — and child-like, is subjectively sincere: he didn’t mean to hurt her, and he’s so desperate and broken in that moment, begging her to come back, that we understand she can’t help but run to his rescue out of empathy. We realize he’s beaten Stella before, and he’ll beat her again, but in this moment, we feel for Stanley the way Stella does. He’s caught in this cycle of violence, and he is dragging Stella down with him.In Foster’s hands, Stanley is an overgrown child prone to blind rages, symptom of his untreated trauma as a war veteran rather than a baser violent streak.Click To Tweet
Foster’s most high profile roles since A Streetcar Named Desire fall into conventionally masculine archetypes, but again, Foster shows us how his characters are a product of their environments. In The Program, Foster plays Lance Armstrong at the top of his game, competing to be the best in a field where doping is the norm. Hubris makes him think he can get away with it, but Armstrong is responding to his environment. Foster’s Armstrong buys into the identity of the athlete, literally a man famous for his muscles. His crime is thinking that “everybody’s doing it” is the same thing as “it doesn’t matter.”
In Hell or High Water, Foster’s Tanner is a vulgar, foolhardy, and rather stupid criminal, who goes after every joy ride he can because it’s all he has. He isn’t robbing banks to prove he can, but to help his brother, his one emotional tie to the world, who has himself been screwed over by the unjust economic system. In their first robbery, Tanner is offended when the cashier implies he wouldn’t come prepared with his own gun. Foster is masked, but the shock and hurt in his voice, delivered while trying to maintain his dignity, reveals this is a man desperately trying to save face. He knows it’s the end of the line for him, so he’s just trying to have some fun while doing it, whether that means knocking over a bank without planning or having impersonal sex with whichever willing woman comes his way. The world is corrupt, and Tanner has been corrupted by it.
Tender men in small films
Part of the critical surprise about B enFoster being so good, subtle, and sensitive in Leave No Trace may simply be the stark contrast of watching him play big and dumb in Hell Or High Water. But he’s been showing us tender grown men with feelings — and more importantly, the ability to express them — repeatedly and consistently in small films dating back to The Messenger.Leave No Trace is less something radically new for Ben Foster than a continuation of what he’s always done: portray a complicated man with some relationship to trauma, in as quiet and subtle a way as possible.Click To Tweet
Back in Lone Survivor (2013), Foster plays a master sniper, approaching his work with a cool, concentrated professionalism. His eyes focus on a target, as he remains calm, and does his job. But he’s also the softie of the group, quiet but warm, and always looking for a way to include even the new recruit who’s constantly mocked by others. In Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (also 2013), Foster is Wheeler, a gun-slinging Texan cop chasing after an outlaw, but mostly looking for love. He’s protective of the woman he’s sweet on, Ruth (Rooney Mara), not paternalistically, but because it’s an instinct that comes with the job and the milieu. He’s intensely polite, keeping his body language professional but warm at all times, even when he’s flirting. In the indie film Here (2012), he’s both a lone explorer who makes maps, and a sensitive, quiet man searching for love.
Leave No Trace is less something radically new for Foster than a continuation of what he’s always done: portray a complicated man with some relationship to trauma, in as quiet and subtle a way as possible. The difference here is that he’s a co-lead rather than a supporting character — putting him in the real spotlight for the first time since The Messenger. Most importantly, Foster has found in Debra Granik a director working at his tempo, who is attuned to the nuances of his performance and interested in lingering on them, in making the character’s psychological complexity and traumatized body the film’s explicit text. It’s one of Foster’s best and the year’s best, and it’s going to be remembered as one of the decade’s best, too.