Tommy Lee Jones has had a uniquely interesting career. He’s made a career out of playing the authoritative Gary Cooper-esque strong silent types; yet Jones has embraced his stoic calling to cinema, freely admitting that some of his turns are because people pay him a lot of money. Even when he’s walking through a role that he’s done before, like in CAPTAIN AMERICA, he’s always a joy to watch. Jones is incredibly sharp; his IQ is astronomic. He’s best friends with Cormac McCarthy, and spends his free time on his ranch in Texas. Jones is also a PR nightmare. He only does interviews because he is contracted to, and he makes it very apparent during them, and you can’t help but feel bad for the person who is interviewing him. His career is has been split into three different factions: staple Tommy Lee Jones, wildly hammy and outrageous Tommy Lee Jones, and the quiet auteur behind the camera who has become one of cinema’s most quietly treasured filmmakers.
BATMAN FOREVER 1995 Dir. Joel Schumacher
Cashing in on his recent Oscar win for THE FUGITIVE, Jones embarked on a crash course of over-the-top shtick. In an interview, Jim Carrey recalled meeting Jones for the first time prior to filming. Carrey was sitting at a bar excited to meet Jones. Jones walked in, went up to Jim Carrey and looked at him dead in the eyes and said, “I hate you. I really don’t like you. I cannot sanction your buffoonery.” As cold and outright awful a thing that is to say to someone, I can’t help but picture that situation in my mind and laugh. Jones spent the entire production in ridiculous costumes and makeup, doing his absolute best to out Jim Carrey, Jim Carrey. Whilst the film is a far cry from the Burton films, it is still a lot of fun. The fun is attributed to the ironically great chemistry between Jones and Carrey.
COBB 1994 Dir. Ron Shelton
COBB is a unique film. It’s a very unorthodox sports biopic by Ron Shelton, yet it almost feels incomplete. For any flaws this film has, it has nothing to do with Jones’ performance. He is remarkable in this film. Shelton did some of the best writing of his career with the overly colorful dialogue that he provides for Jones. He blends his stoicism with a very hammy performance. It is easily Jones’ most understated performance. He plays two Ty Cobbs, the young and ruthless baseball player in flashbacks and then for a majority of the film, a mad old genius that is very reminiscent of Howard Hughes. He’s brilliant, he’s crazy, he’s outrageous, and yet Jones shades this unlikable character with an amount of vulnerability that you cannot help but identify and sympathize with.
HEAVEN AND EARTH 1993 Dir. Oliver Stone
In Jones’ second collaboration with Olive Stone, he portrays the most frightening character in his career, the affable Steve Butler who falls in love with a woman while serving in Vietnam. Throughout the course of the film once he enters, Jones takes a back seat in more of a supporting role, but while watching the film unfold, you feel the pressure of his performance whenever he’s not on screen. His character is brutal, a psychological villain that has nothing to give the world but overt brutality.
JFK 1991 Dir. Oliver Stone
There is not enough that can be said about Oliver Stone’s masterpiece about obsession. It is one of the most engrossing films ever made; it has the most unique ensemble ever. The casting of Jones as a flamboyantly gay, ex CIA man who lives in the public of New Orleans as well as the dark shadow world of conspiracy, and underground sex parties is one of the most brilliant casting strokes ever. Jones plays two characters in this film. Clay Shaw, the upstanding citizen, business man, and community leader of New Orleans. He’s the epitome of a straight man; he’s regarded and respected, he’s a class act. And then. And then we see him as Clay Bertrand, in all gold body paint, with a cap on making himself look like the Greek God Apollo, snapping poppers and inhaling excessive amounts of cocaine and acting in a way that is so repulsive, you are completely mesmerized by his performance.
LINCOLN 2012 Dir. Steven Spielberg
Daniel Day-Lewis playing the most admired President in US history wrapped with Tommy Lee Jones’ turn as the civil rights champion Thaddeus Stevens is an absolute Godsend to cinema. While Day-Lewis’ performance flat-out dwarfs everyone else in this film, Tommy Lee Jones goes toe to toe with him. His screen time is smaller than it probably should have been, but Jones gives a standout performance not only in the film, but also of his career. His apathy for anything other than what is right, is brutally honest in this film. His sunken and worn down physicality only adds mileage to a performance, which if anyone else played could have most certainly been a one note role.
NATURAL BORN KILLERS 1994 Dir. Oliver Stone
In their third and final collaboration Oliver Stone and Tommy Lee Jones brought to life one of the most excessively outrageous characters in a film that was already chalked full of excess. In the third act of the film, we are introduced to the vile Warden Dwight McCluskey, and my God is the Warden a vile human being. His greasy hair is perfectly slicked to the side, his crusty pencil thing moustache is all you can look at, and his zany attire is obnoxious. Jones plays this part perfectly. He outdoes anything he has ever done. His performance is out so out of control it makes Mickey and Mallory look tame.
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN 2007 Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen
No one could have played Sheriff Ed Tom Bell like Tommy Lee Jones. The horror and cruelness of Cormac McCarthy’s world is in every crack and crevasse of this man’s face. The brutality of it all has worn this man down, more so than almost any other character we have seen on the screen. He’s a man who as seen it all, until the events of the film unfold, and his apathy is swiftly shaped into caution and disbelief. His low key performance is criminally overshadowed by the flamboyance of Javier Bardem. This performance remains on the highest tier of his filmography and is one of his most underrated.
THE SUNSET LIMITED 2011 Dir. Tommy Lee Jones
HBO deserves all the credit in the world for allowing Tommy Lee Jones to adapt Cormac McCarthy’s brutally heavy two man play for a Saturday night premier. It is one of the most emotionally draining experiences anyone can endure. The dark philosophy of life is on full display in a two hour conversation between a suicidal intellectual played by Jones and a killer turned born again savior played brilliantly by Samuel L. Jackson. McCarthy’s razor sharp dialogue is made even more protruding by Jones’ linguistic abilities as well as his physical acting.
THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA 2005 Dir. Tommy Lee Jones
The honestly of Jones’ performance in this film is absolutely haunting. The hardened vulnerability of his performance is what won him Best Actor at Cannes, and it is a performance that will always stick with you after seeing it. Out of his entire filmography, his performance in this film is the one that is criminally underseen, underrated, and understated. I implore anyone and everyone to seek this unique film out and watch it. This is the film that put Jones on the map as a not only a brilliant filmmaker, but in that unique class of actor/filmmaker that rarely works to the degree that it does with this gut-wrenching film.
UNDER SIEGE 1992 Dir. Andrew Davis
Whoever was behind casting Tommy Lee Jones against Steven Seagal is a genius. Jones capitalizes on his quick wit and intellect and amazingly holds his own against Seagal in their blistering knife fight during the climax of the film. Jones is at his absolute finest in this film, delivering darkly humorous dialogue that is strangely understandable. Not only is Jones on fire in this film, he also gives us one cinema’s best villains. What makes his performance so great in this film, is how much fun he’s having.
Honorable mentions: THE FUGITIVE/US MARSHALS, IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH, THE HUNTED, BLOWN AWAY, SPACE COWBOYS, LONESOME DOVE, BLUE SKY, THE CLIENT, ROLLING THUNDER.