Cillian Murphy is one of the most underrated actors of his generation. He has taken part in some of the most iconic movies of the 21st century and he should be given more chances to prove his versatile talent. He was born on May 25, 1976, in Douglas, Ireland.
He started studying law at University College Cork but he dropped out after about a year. He has also a musical background as he played in various bands when he was younger. He made his breakthrough with the film “28 Days Later” (2002), a Danny Boyle movie about a zombie apocalypse in London. The film was a major hit and a sequel followed. Then he took part in some secondary roles of successful projects, like “Intermission” (2003) and the “Girl With a Pearl Earring” (2003).
His appearance, especially his sparking blue eyes, caught the attention of some famous directors, who gave him the opportunity to play the sociopath who doesn’t really care about the consequences of his actions. Such roles were Dr. Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow in “Batman Begins” (2005) and the terrorist Jackson Rippner in “Red Eye” (2005).
But his versatile nature was unfolded in “Breakfast on Pluto” (2005), with a remarkable performance as trans woman Patrick Kitten Braden. His acting was superb, giving a new perspective in the portrayal of trans people without any clichés. The next year, Ken Loach gave him the leading role in “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” (2006), a movie about two brothers who are fighting for the independence of Ireland from the Brits.
Cillian Murphy collaborated again with Danny Boyle for the spectacular sci-fi film “Sunshine” (2007). Christopher Nolan also likes to cast him in films, and after “Batman Begins”, Murphy participated in Nolan’s most ambitious film, “Inception” (2010). You could admire his talent in the “Peaky Blinders” (2013-2014) series, too. He plays Thomas Shelby, the ruthless leader of a gangster family in 1919 Birmingham, England. In the second season, we see another one of Nolans’ favorite actors, Tom Hardy.
Murphy is married to Yvonne McGuiness and they have two sons. The sequence of his filmography on this list is random and it does not follow any chronological or other order.
1. Jonathan Breech in “On the Edge” (John Carney, 2001)
The movie starts with a funeral. Jonathan (Cillian Murphy) has lost his father, who died from alcoholism. Although he is feeling sad, he tries to fight the emotions by running away. He steals his father’s ashes and goes on a self-destructive route with his dad’s stolen car. He drives the car into a cliff in order to commit suicide, but miraculously he survives with some minor scratches.
He is sentenced to three months in a psychiatric hospital. He starts group therapy with four other suicidal patients and Dr. Figure (Stephen Rea), a psychiatrist from the hospital. At first, he thinks he is wasting his time with these people. But as time passes, he starts to connect with some of them, especially with a self-harming girl named Rachel (Tricia Vessey).
Dr. Figure warns that he should be careful because this girl is more vulnerable than him. He cares for his patients but as he cynically admits, “some people just don’t get better”. Because he is against medication, he makes an interesting deal with his patients: Nobody should kill or harm himself or herself until January 1st, which is a time frame of three weeks. A deal that will prove very difficult to not break.
“On the Edge” is not your typical movie about suicide and depression. Although the subject of the film is very sensitive, director John Carney manages to keep the balance between reality and an optimistic view about self-harm and suicide. The patients are not the usual caricatures we see in other movies. They have their unique stories and personalities and there is a good analysis of the backgrounds of Jonathan, Rachel and Toby (Jonathan Jackson).
Cillian Murphy delivers a top-notch performance as a suicidal patient of the ward, who is also trying to help the other patients get better. We see him change emotions many times to depict with utmost realism how is it to feel like your life is not worth anything, and to try to find a meaning behind all this pessimism and misery.
2. Jim in “28 Days Later” (Danny Boyle, 2002)
A group of animal activists break into a laboratory in order to stop some experiments on chimpanzees. Despite the pleas of the scientists to not release them and without knowing on what they were experimenting, they do it. Unfortunately, the chimpanzees were the subjects of an experiment on rage, a rage that will turn against them and will eventually turn against the population of London very quickly.
Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up in a hospital 28 days later. He is all alone there, so he goes outside to see what happened. He finds out that there is no one there, either. Instead of finding London, which is full of life 24 hours every day, he sees chilling images of a deserted city, as though a nuclear catastrophe has happened. He enters a church, hoping he will find someone there. He sees a priest but it turns out that he is not going to help him.
He is affected by the virus and Jim starts running for his life. Selena (Naomie Harris) and Mark (Noah Huntley) help him to escape from a horde of zombies, and Jim starts on a dangerous journey to find a sanctuary for himself and the people he meets on the road. During his trip, he will be forced to do things he would never have imagined he was capable of doing.
In “28 Days Later”, director Danny Boyle creates one of the most iconic films about zombies. Although we see how the master of the zombie apocalypse George Romero influences him, he makes a unique movie of the genre. He approaches the theme of rage from a societal point of view and he tries to show the consequences of it in human nature.
What would happen if a virus in a narrowly populated city like London turned the law-abiding citizens into bloodthirsty zombies? And more importantly, what would be the reaction of the survivors? Would they unite in a team or they would also turn against each other? The combination of the fast running zombies with the use of “Dogma 95” style camera creates a movie that will keep you on the edge of your seat until the last second.
The evocative music of John Murphy and the breathtaking shots of an empty London help the relatively unknown actors (with the exception of the already famous Brendan Gleeson) give their best performances. Cillian Murphy proves to be an excellent choice as the protagonist.
Although he was not the first choice for the role, his electrifying performance shows that he is a top actor who is not afraid to challenge himself with such difficult roles, especially in the second part of the movie, where he is great at depicting the change of his character. From being the victim, Cillian Murphy becomes the predator who is not afraid to use violence to fulfill his purpose. He is a method actor and he is not afraid to change his psychical appearance according to his roles.
3. Damien O’Donovan in “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”, (Ken Loach, 2006)
The year is 1920. Ireland is fighting against the oppression of the Brits. Damien O’Donovan is a young doctor who is getting ready to leave the rural area of Ireland where he lives to go to London. His brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney) is a famous commander of the local IRA brigade, and he is trying to convince him not to leave them but fight with them.
Damien is a young idealist and he doesn’t believe in their fight because he thinks it is pointless. Is watching the atrocities of the Brits powerful enough to change his mind? When he goes to the station to take the train to London, he witnesses something unimaginable: the Irish are opposing taking armed English soldiers on the train and managing to keep them out. Maybe there is some hope for the IRA fight after all.
Damien joins the IRA and with his brother, and the other comrades start the armed struggle against the organized British army. There are casualties from both sides and he is forced to obey the rules of the fight. There’s no room for traitors in the IRA and Damien will have to execute some harsh orders that will haunt him forever.
After many fights and deaths, a treaty is signed by Ireland and England for peace. But the treaty is not what Damien and some other Irishmen were expecting. Teddy thinks more pragmatically and tries to convince him to do the same. He accuses him of being a dreamer but as Damien says “I’m not a dreamer, I’m a realist”. Is he going to change and betray his ideals or stand firm on his cause?
Director Ken Loach, almost 10 years after “Land and Freedom” (1995), creates another powerful political drama about oppression and the resistance against it. He uses an intelligent hero, and at first he starts without being fanatic about IRA. The development of Damien’s character is excellent and we see realistically the gradual transformation of his soft approach into becoming a lethal weapon, sometimes without even considering the consequences of his actions.
The multilevel script from screenwriter Paul Laverty helps tremendously to depict a sober approach of the fight of the IRA. But Loach is not interested in showing only the one side of the story. We don’t only watch the atrocities of the Brits against the Irish, but we also watch the painful civil war of the Irish.
Cillian Murphy has never been better. In one of the best (or the best) roles of his career, he creates a believable and unforgettable character. He is the main force of the movie and his acting adds authenticity to the battle between the Irish and the Brits. Murphy shows his stubbornness and unwillingness to face the truth with brilliance as he opposes his brother, who thinks there is no alternative for them.
4. Jackson Rippner in “Red Eye” (Wes Craven, 2005)
Lisa Reisert (Rachel McAdams) is the chief receptionist in a luxury hotel. She is coming home by plane from the funeral of her grandmother. She despises flying, especially taking off. Her flight is delayed and while waiting, she meets Jackson Rippner (Cillian Murphy), a charming man who seems to be interested in her.
The interest is mutual and she is happy to meet someone to pass time during the boring trip. Jackson seems to want to know many things about her personal life. She likes it at first, but after a while it gets a little awkward. It turns out that Jackson is not just a man who wants to flirt with her; he works for people who want to murder the State Secretary for the Public Order of the US. He has someone watching her dad’s house and if she doesn’t cooperate with him, he threatens to have her father killed.
Lisa will do anything to save her father but when she finds out that the family of the politician will be with him, she tries to take charge of the situation and save them. Jackson is ruthless but she after a thief had knifed her several months ago, she promised herself to not allow it to happen again. Will she succeed?
Director Wes Craven, the legendary director of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984) and “Scream” (1996), creates a claustrophobic thriller and ultimately a fight between a woman and a man. Although the second part of the story is a little uneven and harder to believe, it is generally a very good movie for the fans of the genre. The scenes on the plane seem very original and they distinguish it from many movies that were also shot on a plane.
The two protagonists are excellent casting choices and they help the most to keep the pace blistering. Cillian Murphy is once again great and his physical appearance with the “crazy” look convinces the audience of his abilities. He shows how versatile he is by depicting a completely different character from his previous filmography.
5. Robert Capa in “Sunshine” (Danny Boyle, 2007)
In 2057, the sun is dying. If it is completely destroyed, then life on Earth will vanish. Seven years ago, a mission was sent by the spaceship Icarus I to save the Earth, but it was gone even before it got there. Sixteen months ago, another spaceship named Icarus II is sent with a crew of eight people in order to create a star inside the sun by dropping a bomb that will create a big bang on a small scale.
The physicist Capa (Cillian Murphy) has worked for many years to create this stellar bomb that is the size of Manhattan. After all these months, the crew loses the ability to communicate with Earth, so they are now on their own. Suddenly, they receive a signal from Icarus I. Capa and the rest of them always wondered what went wrong with the previous mission. Was it a technical malfunction or something else?
They have to decide whether they are going to change their orbit in order to explore Icarus I. Instead of voting, Captain Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada) proposes that Capa should decide because he is the leader of the mission. Capa is not sure what to say and after careful consideration he decides they should go. It turns out that his decision will create a chain reaction he would never have imagined.
Director Danny Boyle collaborates again with Cillian Murphy and screenwriter Alex Garland after “28 Days Later” (2002), and the result is a transfixing, mesmerizing movie that is not just visually stunning but also deals with philosophical and social issues.
Like the famous “Trolley Dilemma”, which was first mentioned by British philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967, what would you do if the oxygen on the spaceship was enough only for four people but there were five people? Would you be willing to kill the one that is less “useful” for the mission? The decision is even harder when you take into consideration that the survival of life on Earth depends on the success of the mission.
Boyle is not afraid to show his influences from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” (1972), and Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979). Like in “28 Days Later”, the music by John Murphy is combined perfectly with the theme of the movie. Murphy is great as the physicist of Icarus I and he worked with leading physicist Brian Cox to learn all about advanced physics. He even went to a touring of the CERN facility in Switzerland and learned to copy the physicist’s mannerisms.