Headbangers, Aliens, and Everything in Between: Six Amazingly Diverse Roles Of Joseph Gordon Levitt

hesher unreality yo

I had written a list like this some months back about Ryan Gosling, and found it to be a real joy to sit down with his films and just try to discover the subtle (and sometimes, massive) differences between them. And that list planted the seed for a Joseph Gordon Levitt list before the Gosling piece was even finished. There is a mutual level of class both of these actors display when not on set that only makes me appreciate what they do that much. And JGL, as I will refer to him henceforth in this article, has chosen some wickedly different themes for the films and characters he has chosen throughout his career.

From the first time we all remember him (Third Rock From The Sun), to his most recent outing in Lincoln, he never fails to bring something unique and different to the table. And these six roles show just how diverse his film catalogue really  is. Also, fear not, there will be no spoilers for any of the films on this list. You owe it to yourself to see them all, and I refuse to ruin that experience for you. Unseen twists and turns are one of the biggest joys for a cinephile, and these six films are sife with them.

Mysterious Skin (2004)

mysterious skin unreality

This prequel to the prequel of Dumb and Dumber was really depressing.

Mysterious Skin is a movie that definitely should have made one of my “most depressing” or “most disturbing” lists, but hasn’t yet because I can not really bring myself to talk about it. Until now. For me to really talk about Mysterious Skin would be me ruining the movie. It is one of those movies you need to go at blind, but be prepared, because it goes to some shockingly dark places, and does so without warning.

While the film itself resonates with the viewer long after it has finished, it is JGL’s wounded character of Neil that holds the film together. Neil is a troubled young man, stuck firmly in his past, and too numb in the present day to even know what that means. And there is another boy who starts coming around, speaking of alien abductions, and saying him and Neil may have something extraterrestrial in common. If it sounds strange, that’s because it is, but just be prepared to not be prepared.

This is definitely JGL’s darkest role, and an incredibly melancholy movie, but he is so raw and genuine in the film, you can feel his pain, even if he can’t. While not for everyone, if you need to see just how talented JGL is, this should be your first stop.

The Lookout (2007)

lookout unreality

Anytime two men in a movie meet at a bar to discuss business, something bad is afoot.

Much like Mysterious Skin, this movie casts JGL in a light that is far from perfect, and more than just a little wounded. The movie opens up with an accident, and the idea that a single bad decision can forever affect the rest of your life. While this alone could have been the movie, that is just the precursor.

In the film, some “bad” people run afoot of the fact that now , as a result of the accident he was in, Chris (he has a stutter, bad short term memory, bad motor skills) may be easily manipulated to help them reach their nefarious ends. He now works overnight, cleaning a bank, and they figure they can manipulate him into doing what they want, by giving him some ass (in the form of Isla Fisher) and talking up his former, pre-accident Hockey greatness, like they were big fans. Without spoiling the finer points of the film, much happens, especially in the last half hour, that really sets the tone for him to separate who he was from who he is, and you can see him struggle with that. A powerful performance in a great film.

Also worth noting, his odd relationship with a SUPER BADASS (and blind) Jeff Daniels in this movie. Though we don’t know nearly enough about his character, we know he knows his shit, and the scenes he shares with Levitt are a real joy to watch.

50/50 (2011)

5050 unreaLITY

Looks like it would be a scene from a David Lynch film.

Everyone is pretty much aware of this movie where JGL, who is perfectly healthy, gets cancer. We see how he copes with it, with the help of his family, his friends (played by Seth Rogan, as Seth Rogan), and his therapist, played by the lovely Anna Kendrick.

And while I avoided this film at first, thinking it would be a cliche and depressing romp about one man having to cope with his own impending death, it was what JGL brought to the character of Adam that made the film work so well. You see, he did not play Adam like some desperate, dying man, who needs to do everything he can to reach all his goals before he inevitably dies. No, Levitt plays Adam rather quiet, and introverted. And honestly, a bit emotionally frozen, which makes him a far more interesting character to watch grow than some self-pitying victim, which he never forays into.

There is no major ” screaming at the sky WHY ME” moments, just quiet, and moving moments, like the chemo scenes, which shine. And that first time Adam gets high to cope with the chemo, which puts pot in a decidedly more favorable (and honest) light than most films do. A moving and enjoyable film, highlighted by a great starring run by JGL.

Manic (2001)

manic unreality

Not to be confused with Maniac.

This is one of those gems I didn’t even know existed. Was sitting around On-Demand one day, looking for something I had never heard of and BAM, found this movie.

It hit me hard because, for many years of my life I worked with kids who were considered “troubled”, often manic and many times, far worse. But deep inside those kids, I could see they were scared, confused. This movie is brave enough to shine a realistic light on kids with serious mental illnesses, and how they are treated, and learn to cope with the illness as a result. Rarely is the subject touched upon, and the themes in this movie and Mysterious Skin really stuck with me for how well they were handled, and how close they hit to home.

In Manic, JGL plays a teen prone to violent outbursts, and is committed to a juvenile wing of a mental institutions. The film shows his time adjusting and coping, as well as the interactions with those around him. Again, there is a quiet, tortured way that JGL plays Lyle in this film, and as much as you know something is wrong, you genuinely feel for him, even with his rage and what that has led him to do. Again, a heavy film, but one that counter-weighs that heaviness with honesty in its portrayal of the heady subject.

It is also worth noting this movie was the first time most of us had ever seen the magical pairing of JGL and Zoey Deschanel, who would later go on to make 500 Days of Summer, which I am only leaving off the list because it has been talked to death on most sites. Great film, regardless.

Hesher (2010)

hesher unreality

I loved Hesher because, unlike most, I related to Hesher.

I know a great deal of people didn’t like this movie, because it was very cynical and dark, and all the leads were mightily fucked up in their own way, so who were we routing for? But those aspects are why I liked it. And talk about a role JGL loses himself in, even though you KNOW it is him, your mind is constantly shifting that aside, and making this Hesher character exist in his place.  So what is Hesher about? Wow, good question.

Hesher is a movie about a guy named Hesher (played with metal head delight and perfect dry delivery by our man of the hour, JGL) who slowly integrates himself into a family, and exposes some things to them they desperately needed illuminating, but had no idea. While some people abandon the movie halfway because of just how nihilist it all feels, you NEED to stick this movie through to the end for the real payoff for the Hesher character. He may seem the most fucked up one of the lot, but in the end, he has the biggest heart, he just shows it in weird ways. Also, Natalie Portman and Rainn Wilson give stunning performances in this film, so check it out just for the levels of talent on display.  Also, Hesher asks a kid if he has ever been skullf*cked in this movie. See it with family for that line alone.

Brick (2005)

brick unreality

Who beat up the kid from 3rd Rock from the Sun? That’s not cool.

I believe I heard about Brick through Paul, who is a big fan, and as soon as I saw it, I knew why.

Brick is like a noir film meets a high school film. In typing that, I realize how silly it sounds, but you need to trust me on this one, Brick takes you for a very interesting ride, and a ride that is controlled by the powerful performance of JGL as Brendan, who is doing everything within his power to find out who killed his ex-girlfriend, who he still very much loved. This pulls him into a seedy subculture of a drug dealers and fiends, and sets the stage for the powerful climax. What sold this movie to me was the idea that it was a mystery, and had I thought that beforehand, I may not have watched it. But just as much as Brendan in the film, by the end, I felt desperate to find out just what happened to Emily, and what would happen to Brendan when he really figured it out.

Brick, and all the above mentioned movies, show why Joseph Gordon Levitt might be one of the best young talents we have in Hollywood right now. Let’s just hope he doesn’t emulate his unofficial twin, who also was a powerhouse of an actor, just getting started:

oh noez

It is really freaky when you look at them side by side.

Why Are These NOT On The List:

The Dark Knight Rises: I just didn’t think the trilogy ended as strongly as it could have, and JGL’s character of Blake was just not given much of a chance to shine. Guess I gotta wait for that Justice League movie to see what he can really do when he dons a cowl.

Looper: Though this one may catch me some heat, I completely HATED the ‘psychic baby’ subplot in this film. I found it so annoying and tacked on, it detracted from just how good JGL’s performance as Bruce Willis was. Honestly, he even mastered the smirk. Impressive, but the movie itself, eh, not so much. For me, anyway.

Joseph Gordon Levitt;Paul Dano

Remember that scene he drove around with that psychic idiot? Me either.

Inception: Great film and great role, but another movie the interwebz has praised to death, so nothing I could say here would bring anything new. Can say that the hallway fight scene, and knowing what JGL needed to do to pull that scene off, really tripled my respect for him as an actor, though, so props on all counts.


When I drink enough, all hallways are like this to me.

Also, this, for the win.


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