I’m gonna put something out here, and feel free to be wrong and disagree with me, but somehow, seemingly against all odds, Mark Ruffalo has become the greatest movie detective of his generation.
That’s right: soulful and sensitive, indie-movie-starring, awesome feminist ally Ruffalo has slowly morphed into the perfect big screen detective. Where once we had Eastwood’s Harry Callaghan and Hackman’s Popeye Doyle, and, later on, 90’s Pacino (and this is coming from a person whose favourite movie of all time is Heat), today we live in a different time. A more empathetic time. A more enlightened time. A more Ruffalo kinda time. I say this not as a denigrator of the form, but in fact as a huge fan of the genre conceits that come trawling in the wake of the movie detective. There is nothing inherently wrong with tropes. Innovation is rightfully prized, but there is equal merit to playing within the lines with skill and flair; to carrying on certain beloved traditions. And movie detectives? They have to be sceptical; they have to be hard-nosed; preferably they should have some sort of long coat. But there’s no reason they now can’t be more human.
Enter The Ruffalo.
The perfect modern movie detective.
Truth be told this post is based almost entirely on just two roles: Zodiac’s Inspector David Toschi and Detective Fanning from Collateral (yes I know there’s also that one where he supports the Intense Acting Forehead Crevasse in Shutter Island, but…well, we don’t really need to talk about that movie anymore.)
(Though, sure, he does wear that long detective coat damn well.)
But no, the premise of this piece is based entirely on Toschi and Fanning. And that is more than enough.
Some of you may know that I do have a bit of an obsession with Detective Fanning. This obsession is entirely justified. Collateral is a perfect little movie, and Ruffalo’s Fanning is a glorious little chameleon role. I cannot imagine anyone else embodying the tenacious, fidgety, nocturnal spirit that refuses to abandon his theory about Tom Cruise’s otherwise invisible role in the events that transpire the night of Collateral.
When all others are ready to write it off as an open and shut case in need of swift resolution, Fanning simply refuses to let go.
When Peter Berg talks shit and is ready to throw in the towel, Fanning just ain’t having it.
As well as just looking damn cool in the part, Mark Ruffalo imbues Detective Fanning with a determined, live wire energy; as well as an empathy that lifts the character up and above what he would have been had a lesser actor played him. Yes, he’s got his slicked-back hair and his badass bracelet, but there’s a humanity in his eyes and an undeniable warmth to how he interacts with people, even in full flight as a skilled, professional detective.
Mark Ruffalo has an anger and an edge that casting directors often seem to forget about. There is a reason that he is our favourite, perfect Hulk. Joss Whedon cast him because Joss Whedon occasionally sees what others don’t: Mark Ruffalo can subvert those soft features and puppy dog eyes and bring a deceptive, rapidly boiling rage to proceedings that is a hundred times more effective than any number of chiseled, glower-ready faces that Hollywood can throw up.
Inspector Dave Toschi, based on the real life detective involved in the Zodiac Killer case, is an incredible creation. Inititally uninterested in the project until convinced otherwise by director David Fincher, Mark Ruffalo read every report on the case and all the books on the subject, as well as meeting with the real Toschi. What he brought to the screen in the end is a fully three dimensional character, wracked by nerves and anxious with barely contained rage and impatience. Flitting in and out Fincher’s phenomenal narrative, Ruffalo portrays him as a man powered by a very human need to help, but driven to distraction by the obstacles in his path — both human and otherwise. It’s a role that should have gotten the actor an Oscar nod.
And here the plot thickens, as interestingly one of the roles where Mark Ruffalo did get a nomination is for his appearance in Spotlight, where he plays an investigative reporter detective-ing the shit out of a Catholic Church sexual abuse case.
Moviemakers! Listen! The signs are all there! The proof is written in the curly-haired pudding! Cast this man as a long-coated, harried sleuth more often! He can do tenacious! He can do empathetic! He can do nocturnal! Just write a role for him and cast him!
He’ll solve anything.