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.
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