A Walk in the Woods
These guys still know how to not just hold our attention but grab it, even if their current film needs them more than they need…
Is Walton Goggins the best kept secret in American acting? With his somewhat imposing forehead, toothy expressions, and perfectly modulated Southern drawl, you think you know exactly what you're getting. But you'd be wrong. He looks like the go-to guy to play redneck racists and dumb bumbling hicks, but over the last decade Goggins has shown his range is far greater than a lot of bigger name actors. He can be scary, alright, displaying a whiplash intelligence that keeps everyone around him on their toes, but he's also shown flashes of humor, sweetness, compassion, and integrity. Goggins isn't exactly a comforting presence on screen, but if you're a fan you tend to smile every time you see him because you know whatever the situation is it has just been charged with a current of unpredictability.
Born in Alabama and raised in Georgia, Goggins can't help but exhibit a bone-deep Southern swagger. He looks at ease when seated behind the wheel of a pick-up truck, but his ability to temper his cocksure swagger with flickers of fear and vulnerability gives him an edge. As Shane Vendrell, the number-two to Michael Chiklis' corrupt Strike Team leader Vic Mackey on the great "The Shield", Goggins would play up his good ol' boy roots when dealing with black and Mexican gang members as a way to keep them off-balance. They thought they had Shane's number but they were usually wrong. (He almost always had theirs.) Goggins played Shane as a displaced Southerner who nevertheless could handle the rough streets of Los Angeles.
Goggins' run on "The Shield" is where most people took notice of him, but he'd already been acting for at least a decade. He'd even won an Oscar for Best Short Film in 2002 with his creative partner Ray McKinnon. Their short, "The Accountant", is a sharp and observant comedy about what has happened to the farming industry in America. Imagine if the Coen brothers made one of their Southern-fried comic portraits where the condescension is replaced by compassion and you have "The Accountant". And Goggins gives a nicely textured supporting performance as an exasperated brother who comes to appreciate his family's past.
But on "The Shield" he was given the kind of slow-burn star-making role that becomes one of the first things people mention when they talk about the show. The arc of Shane Vendrell from wiseass screw-up to culpable partner-in-crime to heartbreaking moral center remains one of the best character arcs in modern TV history. In episodes like "Posse Up," where Shane goes undercover as a male hustler to stop a string of attacks on gays, Goggins has a ball deconstructing the supposed ingrained homophobia in the typical Southern male. By the end of the episode, Shane has become friendly with some of the other hustlers due to their shared knowledge of muscle cars. It's the kind of writerly touch that could seem precious but Goggins keeps it real by never sacrificing Shane's us-versus-them nature.
"The Shield" made its mark by being edgy in its content. It was literally a dirty cop show, but eventually creator Shawn Ryan's full vision started to emerge as characters were being forced to pay for all their transgressive behavior. Shane's decision to kill relative Strike Team innocent Lem (Kenneth Johnson) in the season five finale "Postpartum" set in motion an excruciating downward spiral for all the characters. Shane's guilt over his actions allowed Goggins to reach down and come up with moments that are some of the best dramatic acting I've ever seen on a TV drama. In the season six episode "Haunts," Shane, no longer able to keep the secret of murdering his best friend from his wife, breaks down and confesses. Holding his gun in a way that suggests the contemplation of suicide (or worse) and telling her what he did, Goggins so completely disappears into the moment that you feel like you're watching someone reveal a part of his soul. ("God, please FORGIVE ME!") It was a moment of acting worthy of Brando, and for a show that was sometimes accused of reveling in its depictions of outlawry, the character of Shane Vendrell became its broken moral compass. By the time of the show's finale, the fate of Shane was all anyone cared about. Having taken his family on the run, Shane realizes that he's hit a wall. At this point in the series Goggins had become a minimalist actor, limiting his movements and gestures to the bare essentials. The final scene of Shane listening to his wife and son playing before calling them to a "family meeting" was the emotional climax of the entire series.
The career of an actor after concluding a memorable run on a TV series can be an uncertain one. The danger is the actor will either always be associated with the character that made them known, or will not be able to transition into something as fulfilling. (James Gandolfini suffered from this problem for a while, then came his remarkable run of supporting roles in "Killing Them Softly", "Not Fade Away", "Zero Dark Thirty", and "Enough Said". He died right when the next act of his career as a great actor was about to begin) For a moment it looked as if Goggins was going to wander the wilderness of TV guest spots, but he knew how to leave an impression. He also went back and teamed up with Ray McKinnon to give support as producers and actors to writer-director Scott Teems first feature "That Evening Sun".
A terrific piece of regional filmmaking that's wiser and more hard-nosed than something like the overrated "Get Low", "That Evening Sun" stars Hal Holbrook in the role of crusty old-timer Abner Meechan, who leaves his nursing home in order to return to his farm to live out the rest of his days. His lawyer son Paul (Goggins) has rented the farm to sworn family enemy Lonzo Choat (McKinnon) and his family. Abner sets up in the tenant shack and proceeds to challenge Lonzo for ownership of the farm. This is all familiar stuff, but Teems doesn't heighten the drama nor play up Abner's curmudgeon-ness in order to win us over. Instead, we are shown just how tiring the old man can be.
The scenes between Goggins and Holbrook are marvelous little duets as our sympathies are continually shifting. As Paul, Goggins lets us see that his father wasn't always the harmless old-timer that he's apparently become. We sense Abner was a hard, mean father. Paul isn't scared of his dad anymore, but he remains guarded around him. Goggins uses his eyes beautifully in his scenes with Holbrook as he watches his every movement. It's the kind of subtle detail that lets us know that Abner used to be capable of erupting into violence and Paul hasn't forgotten.When Abner starts to talk fondly about his late wife, Paul cuts him off and says he doesn't want to talk about "mom," and we intuit that Paul remembers what Abner has conveniently forgotten. The concluding bedside scene between father and son belongs to Goggins as he accepts his father, flaws and all.
And Goggins has done a surprisingly good job of not having any of his tics from television carry over to his movie work. In Rod Lurie's hot-house re-do of "Straw Dogs", Goggins, in just a brief amount of screen time creates a portrait of small-town compassion where it is in scarce supply. Goggins has been very careful not to fall into the trap of playing redneck racists. He knows it's what audiences (and directors) expect him to do. That's why it was such a kick to see him in both Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" and Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained". In "Lincoln", he played an Ohio congressman who is at first scared of what his constituency will think if he votes for the passage of the Thirteenth amendment, but finally does in a triumphant moment that Goggins plays for all its worth. In "Django Unchained", he plays CandieLand overseer Billy Crash as a gleefully vicious racist. Reportedly, a good chunk of Goggins' scenes were cut due to time, but what remains is quite memorable, especially Crash's first encounter with Jamie Foxx's Django.
Currently Goggins has pulled off the incredible feat of returning to series television without bringing any of the baggage of his previous TV character. Inspired by an Elmore Leonard short story, "Justified" is a modern-day Kentucky-set Western that pits former childhood best friends U.S. Deputy Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphnat) and reformed white supremacist-turned-Harlan County crime lord Boyd Crowder (Goggins) against each other. Being set in the world of Leonard ("Get Shorty", "Out of Sight") means the show is both heavily plotted and written. All the characters are colorful and they all speak in Leonard's trademark densely textured dialogue that affords a level of articulation that isn't always possible. Everyone has a smart line or, more precisely, a smart retort.
Goggins is one of the few actors on the show who doesn't get tripped up by its twisty lines. Boyd speaks in a slow and precise manner that lets you know he registers everything that's immediately in front of him, but also lets you know he can see what lies five steps ahead. Goggins also does something that you don't see many villains on TV shows do: he uses stillness to command authority. On "The Shield", Goggins played Shane with a head-shaking nervous energy that kept you in suspense. Here, Boyd at times seems to be moving in slow motion, but when he springs into action it's because he's sized up the situation and knows he'll come out the winner.
Boyd was originally intended to appear on the show's first episode, but it says something about what Goggins brought to the role that the show's creators decided that they had something special. Boyd, who was a small-time con artist specializing in blowing black churches, would go through a conversion of sorts after being shot in the chest by Raylan. The first few seasons of "Justified" got a lot of mileage out of watching Boyd doing his best to go straight. He said getting shot made him see the error of his ways, but we were never completely certain if he was pulling the long con. The beauty of the way Goggins plays Boyd is that he's both sincere and a con artist. It turns out Boyd Crowder is the most honest man in Harlan County.
Boyd may technically be the bad guy, but we've come to almost love him. Goggins plays him with a core of hard truth that lets us know that he knows exactly who he is and doesn't pretend to be anyone else. Boyd is a hard criminal capable of cold-blooded murder, but the gaining of power is not his primary motive. It's the love of his woman Ava (Joelle Carter) that fuels his actions. Ava originally wanted to be with Raylan, but she finally went with Boyd because, like him, she accepted the truth that she's a bad person. They became a backwoods power couple, with Boyd scheming, intimidating, and killing in an attempt to bring respectability to his beloved bride-to-be. That's romantic, and shows a level of commitment that Raylan is simply incapable of. Raylan is ostensibly the good guy, but he's such a hot-tempered asshole who barely acknowledges the authority of his superiors and makes vague declarations of commitment to his newborn baby girl (who he has yet to see), that we really can't respect him. And it's the contrast between Boyd the criminal/devoted partner and Raylan the deadbeat dad/lawman that gives the show its friction. The scenes of Goggins and Olyphant verbally sparring with each other are some of the most supremely satisfying duets on television.
Like "The Shield", "Justified" looks to be slowly heading to a dark finish. It was announced at the end of season four that the show would begin to wrap things up over the next two seasons, and, indeed, halfway through last season things started to get grim for Boyd. In the season-four episode "Money Trap" Boyd and Ava found themselves at a private house party for the very rich. They view the invitation to the party as a possible entry into the inner circle of power in Harlan County.
It turns out to be a swingers' party, and there's something touching in Boyd wanting to remain a gentleman despite the fact he and Ava run a brothel. It was the first time we saw Boyd was out of his depth and the point was driven home when some corrupt politicians attempt to blackmail him into doing their dirty work. We'd never seen Boyd backed into a corner, and the moment was quite affecting, especially when Goggins' eyes go dark as a wave of class resentment washes over Boyd's face. The following episode ("Outlaw") saw Boyd regaining the upper hand as he demands $100,000 and a Dairy Queen franchise from the Harlan County fathers. The request for a Dairy Queen is the kind of humorous detail that's also universal: Boyd sees operating a legitimate business as his ticket to respectability. When Boyd stares down his blackmailers and declares, "I am an outlaw," it's a triumphant moment. By finally embracing his outlaw nature as a means to gaining legitimacy Boyd has potentially sealed his fate.
All of season five has had Boyd displaying flickers of fear as he is constantly angling to pull off a major heroin deal in order to get enough power to get Ava out of jail. At times, the convoluted storyline has been a little taxing, but Boyd's determination to get his woman out of jail has provided enough of an emotional throughline for us to follow. And Goggins' slow turn to darkness has been thrilling to watch. In the episode "Kill the Messenger," Boyd pays one of his former white supremacist cohorts to have his incarcerated sister protect Ava in jail. When they double-cross Boyd, he returns to collect his money and proceeds to brutally beat the guy. Part of the beat down is fueled by revenge, but Goggins lets us see that Boyd also enjoys getting out his aggression through violence. This seems to be a new development in Boyd or, more accurately, old impulses resurfacing.
In the penultimate episode "Starvation," things got even darker as Boyd's instinct for self-preservation saw him potentially the one person he ever loved. Ava, like Boyd, is a survivor, and had let Boyd go as a way of preserving her energy while in jail. This left Boyd without a clear motive for his actions for the first time and found him temporarily working with Raylan in an undercover situation. Olyphant's "Deadwood"-lite terseness matches up beautifully with Goggins' verbal fluidity as both men are locked into a dance of wills. The key to their brothers-under-the-skin relationship is that they're both outlaws, but only one of them knows it. The song says no one leaves Harlan alive, and Boyd is all too aware that inevitably there's only one way out for an outlaw.
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