There was a time when Robert Pattinson was in danger of being typecast as a pretty face with a mop of unruly hair. He had just finished the Twilight series, a franchise that transformed him into the forbidden fantasy of teenaged girls and bored housewives alike. His five-film run as Edward Cullen, a centuries-old vampire whose dedication to a human teenager was almost as swoon-worthy as his sparkly skin, forced to him to flirt with the kind of adulation and fawning that have doomed so many good-looking actors over the years (pour one out for the Hayden Christensens and Chad Michael Murrays Hollywood filed as “too hot” to be taken seriously). Even Pattinson’s co-star in the Twilight series, Taylor Lautner, has fallen victim to that dreaded fate.
And for a while after the series ended, it looked like the actor might be immortalized as just another teen heartthrob. Most of the buzz around him when Twilight ended centered on debates over his actual attractiveness or his relationship with Kristen Stewart. He was given the nickname RPattz. Things were not looking good for longevity. But in hindsight, the success of the franchise, and the fame it brought to its male lead, gave Pattinson the freedom to chart his own path on screen and instead of cashing in on offers of more blockbusters, or roles where he’d play some rom-com hero, Pattinson chose the path less followed.
– He chose David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, in which he played a self-destructive billionaire with contained nervous energy and who spent most of the film in a downward spiral inside a moving limousine.
– He chose The Rover, a gritty, apocalyptic Western that saw him sporting a heavy garbled accent and rotting teeth as a dim-witted grifter in over his head.
– He chose to play a mostly-sane limo driver in Maps to the Stars, an insufferable womanizer in Bel Ami, and T.E. Lawrence in Warner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert. Some were hits, some were misses, but Pattinson has never been afraid of risk, and that fearlessness, that overt desire to break whatever mold audiences might have placed him in, is finally paying off. The actor’s resume over the past few years has steadily gotten better, and so much weirder.
In the 2017 crime drama Good Time, Pattinson convinced the Safdie brothers to let him bleach his signature locks, grow patchy facial hair, and try on a street-specific Queen’s accent. Pattinson sent an email to the brothers, begging to be cast in whatever project they were working on next which is how he ended up disappearing in the role of Connie, a hustling bank robber trying to survive his rough neighborhood and take care of his developmentally disabled brother. The role, which is arguably Pattinson’s best work so far, transformed him into a character actor. Connie’s manic desperation to rescue his brother causes a downward spiral filled with drug deals and police standoffs and questions of morality and justice. He’s endearing and despicable all at once, bubbling with energy and a d*ck-swinging charisma that captivates not because he’s inhumanly attractive — he’s not – but because his nearly disappears in the role, convincingly bringing to life a street urchin we both root for and condemn in equal measure.
Pattinson followed up Good Time with Damsel, a western comedy with Mia Wasikowska in which he played a naïve, affluent pioneer with misguided notions of marriage. Humor isn’t a muscle the actor has flexed often but he did so here, playing a guy who fancied himself so in love with a Wasikowska’s Penelope that he traveled cross-country with a miniature pony named Butterscotch in tow just to propose to her. It would mark his first on-screen masturbation too, which seems like an odd detail to remember until you realize that Pattinson has continued to reenact that particular state of vulnerability in his past few films.
Like Claire Denis’ High Life, a mind-bending exercise in endurance that tests audiences’ capacity to sit through truly bizarre world-building. Pattinson plays Monte, a convict serving as an unwilling test subject for a deranged doctor’s sexual experiment aboard a spaceship searching the cosmos for alternative energy sources. He’s a stabling presence amid zero-gravity masturbation montages, hallucinatory rape scenes, and images of humans being splintered by the force of black holes. It’s the kind of surreal, repulsive material that could render a film unpleasant if not for Pattinson’s endearing earnestness and grounding humanity.
In Robert Eggers’ somber black-and-white drama The Lighthouse, Pattinson sheds that humanity rather quickly as Winslow, a wickie serving on a remote island with an elderly supervising officer played by Willem Dafoe. The entire film is a character study in the differences between these two loners with Pattinson beginning as a contained presence, a man harboring a dark secret before slowly unfurling his inhibitions thanks to Dafoe’s manipulations, heavy amounts of spirits, and dream-like visions. He masturbates (again) on screen, quite “ferociously” as he’s described in recent interviews, to horror-tinged images of mermaids and rolling seas before chugging copious amounts of liquor, dancing a jig, and speaking in tongues. It’s the kind of role a lesser actor might struggle to shoulder and one that demands all the camera’s attention and forces Pattinson to invent its climactic tone.
It’s also a wholly different character than the star’s most recent role (in Netflix’s The King) as a delightfully unhinged French monarch with an accent so over-pronounced, it’s nearly hypnotic. Pattinson, sporting a shoulder-length bob he routinely tucks behind his ears while threating Timothee Chalamet’s King Henry V, chews up the scenery in Joel Edgerton’s historical epic. He’s menacing, deranged, and bloodthirsty in a way that makes him both comical and unpredictably dangerous. He’s not meant to be the star of this film, but he pulls focus anyway, committing to all the eccentricities that he’s suplied his character with and then over-delivering on them.
And that is, perhaps, what Pattinson should be applauded for – more than his desire to chase after boundary-pushing material or work with cinematic auteurs. He’s constantly pushing himself, testing his own sense of comfort and demanding audiences do the same. If you cringe at his antics, if you can’t stomach his shameless characterizations, he’s doing something right. He’s reinventing himself with every scene, pressing us to look past his celebrity and find whatever strange, magnetic force he’s inhabiting at any given time. He’s seeking and redefining in a way that feels exciting to watch, forcing us to guess which bizarre role, which peculiar film he’ll pop up in next.
He’s, as they say, a character actor with a leading man’s face, but he hasn’t let that deter him from forging an unpredictable, almost chaotic filmography over the years, and we don’t blame you for itching to see what he does next. We certainly are.