This Week In: Underutilised Jon Bernthal
On Jon Bernthal in Netflix's The Unforgivable, and other Bernthal-adjacent topics.
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I watched The Unforgivable with my mum one afternoon. It stretched well into the evening considering how many times we had to pause the film. It was pretty intense. In a story that seemingly had no room for levity, Jon Bernthal plays an almost buffoon-like love interest to Sandra Bullock’s ex-convict Ruth Slater.
A quick plot summary: an adaptation of the British series of the same name, Sandra Bullock plays Ruth Slater, a woman that’s just completed a 20-year prison sentence for a violent crime we don’t really know about when we first meet her. Slater seeks to reconnect with her younger sister, Katie, whom she left behind all those years ago.
This is a really sad film. You watch Bullock dive into these really dark places, heavy with struggle. The odds are already stacked against her character, what with the US’ Justice System making it harder for the recently incarcerated to re-enter society.
Bernthal’s character is not a buffoon, per se. Not exactly. He’s just sweet, and a little out of his depth, until his significance to the plot increases by just a smidge, propelling Ruth into the kind of violence she had always anticipated.
Bernthal plays Blake, a nice-enough guy that works with Ruth at a fish packing factory. He offers her a hand of friendship, with Ruth often bats away. She gives in one day and agrees to let Blake drop her off at her carpentry job. A song blares through his car’s speakers accidentally on purpose; he tells her this is his band playing. His band from long, long ago, far away now from their screamo rock days. He’s a little sweet, but a little pathetic. A little sympathetic, but suspicious, given everything we’ve seen Ruth go through in the film.
Ruth is ultra-cautious and guarded, the government making her very existence hard enough as it is. When Blake brings her donuts and a new coat, she nearly whacks him in the head. His kindness almost seems misguided to her, and the way Bullock is playing it—she’s just waiting for the other shoe to drop.
And the shoe does drop. Blake, upon discovering that Ruth was imprisoned for killing a cop, couldn’t keep it to himself. He just had to spill the beans. Ruth later gets assaulted by a co-worker whose father is a police officer, whilst Blake distances himself from her. He reveals to her that he too is an ex-con, and even their interaction (associating with known felons is a parole violation) could cost them both their new lives. Blake’s eyes are almost always glazed over. He feels a lot and he makes a lot of mistakes. But he does care about her.
But then he disappears from Ruth’s story. And despite my desire to see more of him doddering and blundering all over the place, I don’t blame her or the filmmakers for his lack of screentime. There’s no role too big or too small for our boy.
This role sits in an interesting pocket within Bernthal’s oeuvre. Blake joins Rick Macci in Jon Bernthal’s recent foray into mustachioed soft-but-strong men in this year alone. Ethan from Those Who Wish Me Dead is a firm but gentle family man; Swaino in Small Engine Repair is as clueless as much as he feels guilt or pain (a pain he won’t fully recognize, no less); The Many Saints of Newark briefly introduces Johnny Boy Soprano as aggressive and shadowy, whereas Macci and Blake from The Unforgivable are guys trying their best in a world that doesn’t really have a place for the kind of men they are anymore.
It’s not even a ‘nice guys finish last’ thing, either. Macci had a method to his very controlled madness. He wanted the best for those girls despite his clashes with the titular King Richard. He’s a self-made man, emblematic of the idea of any kind of dream one could have when in competition. Blake, on the other hand, is a guy trying to get by that just wants to feel a little less lonely.
It’s no secret that Bernthal has range, but what’s most interesting about him for me—especially this year—is that he’s managed to tackle so many different facets of a kind of masculinity that has often been portrayed as one-dimensional. The one thing all those men have in common is that there is a tenderness to them combatting their exhausting ‘manliness’, some characters with the scales tipping in one direction more than the other. It’s what makes Bernthal such a refreshing performer. I can’t wait to see what he does with American Gigolo and whatever it was he was doing with my parasocial nemesis Lena Dunham.
Another week, another love letter to the man who admitted on the hot wings show that he peed his pants to get a laugh for clowning class. A man who shows up in Taylor Sheridan projects to look sexy and then die (or get beat up). A man who is friends with Steven Yeun. Yeah, that checks out.
The Devil of Hell’s Kitchen and Friends
Speaking of Bernthal, I’ve been rewatching Daredevil again. We’re on Season 2 now, The Punisher/Elektra season, and I’m having a ball. I mean, it’s all a little scary and gory and intense but this is the shit that I’ve missed from all this flavourless superhero genre.
Hitting episodes 3 and 4 has been such a treat! Truly some of the best performances on the whole show, if not ever in these silly little comic book adaptation endeavors. The monologue Frank Castle gives about his daughter at the cemetery made my and my mum cry again. The fight choreography on this show might be better than I remember it to be. Maybe I’m just overly sentimental. Guys, I really love this show?
I am not immune to Charlie Cox. Nor do I wish to be. I think we need to make men great again, and men haven’t been great since the second season of Daredevil. This show proves that I can recognize the back of Jon Bernthal’s head anywhere. It’s a very distinct and beautiful back of the head.
Since watching a certain film I cannot name but it’s your fault for assuming I’m talking about what you think I’m talking about, Charlie Cox has re-entered my orbit and is creeping up the Hyperfixate leaderboard to unseat Elvira Lind’s husband. I hope to personally ensure the resurgence in popularity for Netflix’s Daredevil. I hope Kevin Feige doesn’t sully the revival with his dull, boring, little hands.
International Steven Yeun Day
Happy belated birthday to my beloved Glenn Rhee, Steven Thee Yeun himself. Have you guys seen The Humans? He’s swell in that. The Humans is a spooky little film adapted from writer-director Stephen Karam’s one-act play. When the play was Off-Broadway, his character Richard was portrayed by none other than Arian Moayed. #TeamStewy. #TeamGlenn. And so on.
That’s all for this week! (For now. I might be starting a new series on this newsletter.)