Half Nelson is the story of an unlikely friendship between high school freshman “Drey” (Shareeka Epps) & her drug addicted teacher/basketball coach “Dan” (Ryan Gosling). One of the many monkeywrenches in their relationship comes in the form of “Frank” (Anthony Mackie) – a shady friend of Drey’s older brother. I still hold this film in high regards because it not only showcased three incredible performances, but a story concerning the friendship between a teenage girl and her older male teacher could have easily veered off to an obvious path (especially within independent film) and director Ryan Fleck chose not to. Gosling would go on to earn an Oscar nomination for his performance in this film while Epps won an independent spirit award for hers. Some might say Half Nelson was the movie/performance that truly put Gosling “over” with audiences (I know The Notebook was a huge for him but this sleeper Oscar-nominated performance got him recognition beyond swooning young women, which, strangely enough, continues to be his primary fanbase).
If you don’t pay close enough attention to Anthony Mackie’s performance in Half Nelson you might forget that the character of “Frank” is kind of a scumbag. I know some of you who are familiar with this movie would argue that it’s not that simple and his intentions are a bit more complex & complicated (he does have a warped sense of care and/or brotherly protection towards Drey), but at the end of the day he’s not only a scumbag but he’s also a predator. Those two characteristics equate “villain” to me. And not only is he a predator & a scumbag, but he’s also spineless. In the film his character is responsible for Andrea’s brother going to prison because he couldn’t own up to the ambiguous/unspoken crime that he committed. Mackie’s performance in the film takes on an additional dimension because he not only tricks Drey in to thinking he’s a good guy, but he also has some of us, the audience, fooled in to thinking that as well. I can’t tell you how many time I’ve expressed my disdain towards Frank to my friends who have seen Half Nelson only for them to go; “huh? He wasn’t that bad.” Then I have to remind them that he’s a drug dealer that tries to recruit Drey to sell drugs (and at one point he puts her life in potential danger). But that’s the beauty of the performance. Frank/Mackie is charming, playful and kind of childlike. We never see him act violent or use a weapon. He doesn’t really raise his voice in anger (with the exception of one scene). The only time we see him use his presence for intimidation is to help Drey get her bike back that was stolen by a bigger kid (a typical/acceptable big brother move). Throughout most of the film he flashes this seemingly genuine smile and up until the final act of the movie you really feel like he’s concerned for Drey’s well-being. I mean, if you put aside the fact that Frank is a piece of shit, anyone would question and even try to intervene in the relationship between a young latchkey kid and her unstable older male teacher. But when Frank finally succeeds in (temporarily) dividing them, we see he really just wanted to use her (in the climax of Half Nelson we see Frank initiate Drey in to the world of drug dealing which immediately turns her off as her first client turns out to be Dan).
This is one of the more complex/strangely-acted (strangely in a good way) villainous performances since Craig Berko in Long Kiss Goodnight (one of the most smiley/nicely spoken villains in modern film) or Paddy Considine in a Room For Romeo Brass (at the end of the day Considine’s “Morel” is a “bad guy” but given he is a developmentally disabled on some level, it isn’t all his fault which makes his character complicated). Given the hype surrounding the two lead performances (Gosling & Epps), it’s understandable that Mackie would go somewhat unnoticed. But now that it’s the 10th anniversary of Half Nelson maybe it’s time to go back and give his performance a reexamination.
don't forget to check out all the other entries in the Great Villain Blog-O-Thon over at Speakeasy (click on the image below)