All Hail Haley!

[29 April 2010]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

Jackie Earle Haley was a child star. He made a major splash in The Bad News Bears (the Walter Matthau/Tatum O’Neal version) as greasy pre-teen cool guy Kelly Leak and solidified his post-kiddie stardom with an amazing turn in the Oscar winning Breaking Away. Some may even remember him as the suave-lite sidekick to Tom Cruise in the tacky teen sex comedy Losin’ It. But after appearing in a couple of low budget horror films in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, Haley decided to drop out of Hollywood. No longer capable of playing the pimply loners with a simultaneously schizophrenic sweet/sinister side, he moved to Texas and became a successful director of TV commercial. Another tale of youthful aspirations undermined by adult realities.

Almost 13 years passed before Sean Penn suggested he be part of the All the King’s Men remake. It was a risky move, considering Haley’s mature celebrity was shaky at best. Taking the small part of bodyguard Roderick “Sugar Boy” Ellis, the actor re-announced his desire to be part of the movie mainstream - and then came on like gangbusters. Since then, he’s done nothing but definitive work. Beginning in 2006, Haley has given three Academy-worthy performances in high profile films, acting turns which illustrate how powerful this unassuming star can be. Taking advantage of his unusual looks and complex demeanor, directors such as Todd Field and Zack Snyder have recognized that when it comes to able anti-heroes, the brilliant bad guys we clearly love to loathe, Haley is absolutely flawless.

In celebration of his amazing interpretation of one of Reagan Era’s definitive baddies, it’s time to look back on the trilogy of terrific performances given by this highly underrated star. All three have a similar theme of misplaced anger and social rejection. Each walks the fine line between supposedly law abiding and outright evil. They are misunderstood in their own intentions and often caught in the crossfire between innocence and clear criminality. Perhaps most importantly, each one has a past processed through pain and humiliation, driving a stake into the peace one could create and, instead, fostering a fiendishness that often explodes into acts of horrific violence (or sickening sexuality). Beginning with his nominated turn in a sublime suburban satire, Haley has reset the benchmark for believable perversion - and from the look of it, he’s just getting started: 

 
Ronnie James McGorvey
Little Children
As the catalyst for this clever spin on the sad self-delusion of the gated community set, Haley takes the meek, creepy ex-con sex offender and turns him into a symbol of everything corrupt about community mass hysteria circa the new millennium. When Ronnie wants to go swimming, he clears a public pool full of his neighbors. His house is the source of sinister inference and outright pledges of outcast ire. He gets neighborhood watch groups antsy and makes his mother sad. All she wants is for her misconstrued son to settle down with a nice girl and give normalcy a try. But as we soon learn, even on a date with a decent if damaged young woman, the lure of the playground is just too great. There is an extremely disturbing moment when Ronnie’s real motives are revealed and its makes even the most liberal minded viewer squirm with necessary nausea.

But as often is the case with a Haley role, his fiend is also a victim, the constant harassment taking a toll in ways few really fully appreciate. All throughout Little Children, Field argues that the upper middle class, with its McMansions and fleet of SUVs are really hiding from their own inner fetishes. When given a chance, they will buy soiled panties off the Internet, cheat on their best friend with her self-defeatist husband, and play vigilante where mere vigilance would do. In Ronnie, Haley turns his slight frame into a specific kind of lightning rod - one that cannot be ignored and begs to be embraced. By offering such a multidimensional take on what is usually a single-sided monster, the actor argues for all his year end accolades. Had Alan Arkin not been rewarded for his lifetime of work, Haley would be holding an Oscar right now - and rightfully so. 

 
Rorschach/Walter Kovacs
Watchmen
If Heath Ledger deserved an Academy Award for his turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight, then Jackie Earle Haley demanded one for his work as the lagging craven conscience of Alan Moore’s reinvention of the superhero mythos. Ingenious, moving, and maneuvered through a mask most of the time, Rorschach stands as the veiled voice of reason in a world awash in nuclear panic and murderous mystery. He’s the martyr to the cause, the only member of his former crimefighter brethren who still believes in the concept. Described as smelly, ill-mannered, and psychotically disturbed, Haley gets all the nuances just right: the voice that sounds both defeated and defiant: the posture that suggests both heroism and horror; the thoughts that moderate from inspired to insane; and when finally revealed, a façade deadened by a past filled with spite, struggles, and unholy slaughter.

The main sequence for Haley comes when Rorschach is framed for the murder of a former nemesis. In prison, without his “face”, he is confronted by a psychiatrist who sees dollar signs in the infamous patient. As ‘Walter’ describes his life, we see flashbacks that build on the anger we’ve already witnessed - and then, he tells the tale of a lost little girl and the pervert who proudly confesses to her death. Illustrating the kind of explosive rage that we’ve always expected, the proceeding bloodbath highlights the lengths that Rorschach will go to in validating his principles. It’s the reason he continues when law and the government forbid him from doing so. It’s the reason he will stand up to the rest of his peers when they suggest silence as compliance. It’s also the reason that his is the most tragic of all the epic’s complicated characters. 

 
Freddy Krueger
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010
At first glance, it would look like Haley was going backward, reverting to a more lethal and unhinged version of the minor man he played in Little Children. True, both Ronnie James McGorvey and the seemingly sweet gardener at a local pre-school are two sides of the same corrupt coin. But unlike the former, who can do little to right the perceived wrongs against him, Krueger takes up the blade and begins killing. Indeed, even when faced with an eternity in Hell, the fiend finds a way to continue his quest - and as a result, no one on Elm Street is safe. Of course, the most unique thing about this villain is the domain in which he dwells - dreams. Unlike Ronnie, who runs around his community as part pariah, part propaganda, Krueger is a silent, sneaky villain. He can infiltrate your most vulnerable moments and murder you without ever drawing believable attention to his acts.

By giving the iconic monster a backstory loaded with McMartin/Wee Care complexity, by hinting of both his obvious guilt and possible innocence, Haley has more to work with than former Freddy Robert Englund, and he takes full advantage of the depth. His is a more serious version of the slayer, a take based around mob justice, whispered secrets, repressed memories, and obvious adolescent angst. For Haley, Krueger is everything the allegation of child abuse infers - the horror, the hurt, the harm, and the hamfisted overreaction. In every line reading, in every threatening act, in every special effect accent, the man with the glove of knives is not out to destroy so much as he is out to vindicate, to question, to demand a trial where none was given. Sure, it’s all about payback in the end, but Haley turns the tables on the character, making him less about the punchline and more about the punishment. As a result, he makes is own claim to the classicism of the character.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/124640-all-hail-haley/