Cillian Murphy’s 10 best roles – ranked!

“I like to do one thing quite well,” Cillian Murphy told NME back in July 2023 when asked about other careers that never quite took off – then promoting the film that went on to win him the Oscar for Best Actor. Turns out he’s also pretty good at understatements.

Where Murphy’s Oppenheimer co-star Robert Downey Jr probably has his own Oscar cemented into a marble plinth already, you wouldn’t be surprised if Murphy has tucked his away in a drawer somewhere, never to be mentioned again. Famously humble, Murphy likely still balks at describing himself as “quite” a good actor, even though he’s been on a winning streak now for more than 25 years.

Starting out on stage in his hometown of Cork in the late 1990s, Murphy’s career is written in gutsy, complex, internal performances that feel like bottled lightning. The parts (and the budgets) have gotten bigger, but Murphy never plays for the multiplexes – taking on soldiers, sadists and IMAX-sized scientists with the same restraint he brought to his early indies. And he does it quite well. Here are 10 of his best…

10. Jackson Rippner – Red Eye (2005)

There’s precious little space given over to romcoms in Cillian Murphy’s filmography (mostly just the little-seen Watching The Detectives, and the non-traumatic bits of Breakfast On Pluto), but for the first 10 minutes of Wes Craven’s Red Eye it looks like he and Rachel McAdams are about to go all Nora Ephron on us. Then Murphy reveals himself as an evil assassin and starts hamming his way through what has to be his most enjoyable bad-guy role to date. International terrorism has never looked more charming.

9. Robert Capa – Sunshine (2007)

Oppenheimer wasn’t the first film that saw Murphy play a conflicted physicist obsessed with a bomb. In Danny Boyle’s divisive sci-fi thriller he’s Robert Capa – the professor charged with flying an exploding spaceship into the Sun (dying) to try and reignite it. Here he spent time with Professor Brian Cox to learn the lingo, and became so deeply enmeshed in the world of science that he ended up renouncing his own belief in God on set. And it all pays off for the film: however far off the rails the last act falls, it’s Murphy’s perfectly controlled performance that brings it home.

8. Pig – Disco Pigs (2001)

Murphy’s first film is an adaptation of his first stage performance – playing a violent, unpredictable teen tearaway in Enda Walsh’s blistering Irish coming-of-ager. The secret of all Murphy’s bottled-up power lies back here, as this is where it wasn’t bottled-up at all. Raw and unfiltered from the very start, there’s something primal about his expression of rage and passion that still bubbles under the quieter waters of his later work, and here it was more than enough to get Murphy noticed by director Danny Boyle and kickstart his career.

7. Jim – 28 Days Later (2002)

Talking of Boyle… After noticing Murphy seething away in Disco Pigs, the director cast him as the complete opposite in his non-zombie horror: an almost silent everyman who wanders through the apocalypse on his own, mostly just being frightened and sad and lonely. 28 Days Later gave us plenty (running zombies, John Murphy’s post-rock score, a decent sequel) but its best gift was signalling the mainstream arrival of Murphy – delivering a tour de force that slow-builds from zero to (existential) hero.

6. Shivering Soldier – Dunkirk (2017)

Murphy had already worked with Christopher Nolan four times when he took a tiny role in the director’s WWII opus. Unnamed, and barely on screen for 15 minutes, Murphy’s character in Dunkirk is still the soul of the film – playing a soldier with PTSD who loses his mind when he finds out the rescue boat is taking him back to the battlefield. Of all the vignettes in Dunkirk, it’s this one that feels like it could stand the strongest on its own – and Murphy’s shell-shocked soldier that best sums up all the horror and madness behind the famous heroics of the 1940 evacuation.

5. Dr Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow – Batman Begins (2005)

Back to the early noughties – when a newly minted Hollywood career landed you a casting call for every new superhero movie going – Christopher Nolan originally tested Murphy for the role of Batman. It sounds daft now and it probably sounded daft then too, but Nolan offered Murphy the bad-guy instead, gifting the film its biggest secret weapon in the war against comic-book cliches. Batman Begins revolutionised the genre, but it wouldn’t have done so if Christian Bale was stuck fighting a hammy cartoon Scarecrow instead of Murphy’s calm, chilling, utterly charming Dr. Crane.

4. Robert Fischer – Inception (2010)

Is this a small role? Or is Murphy actually in every scene? Here playing businessman Robert Fischer, Murphy’s mind becomes the setting of Nolan’s whole film: the mind that becomes a maze for a gang of dream-walking thieves to get lost in. Where most other actors would shrink under the weight of the visuals with so few lines to speak, Murphy proves himself here more than most – delivering a powerhouse performance in a mostly unspoken subconscious that carries everything that feels real and earned in the film.

 

3. Damien O’Donovan – The Wind That Shakes The Barley (2006)

The conflict of the Irish War of Independence finds its way into the O’Donovan family in 1920, as Murphy’s doctor-turned-freedom fighter finds himself fighting his own brother. If there’s a pattern to be found across Murphy’s best performances it’s in the way he skilfully builds walls around his characters – only ever letting us peek through the cracks. What a masterstroke, then, to work with Ken Loach, a director who spent his whole career knocking those walls down. The result is heartbreaking: Murphy’s reserve clashing head-first into Loach’s authenticity to fuel something that feels genuinely real.

2. Tommy Shelby – Peaky Blinders (2013-2022)

The role that launched a thousand shitty haircuts. As the lesser legacy of Steven Knight’s Brummie crime drama fades like a branded Primark t-shirt, the weight of the show itself remains as powerful as ever – with Murphy’s Tommy Shelby now safely joining the ranks of the all-time great on-screen gangsters. As cold-hearted and ruthless as he is secretly broken by his own past, Shelby’s razor-sharp stoicism hides as much of his real character as he possibly can. By the time most of it spills out over 36 episodes and six full seasons, most of us still don’t know whether we should have been rooting for him or not.

1. J. Robert Oppenheimer – Oppenheimer (2023)

Forget the Oscar. Forget Barbie. Forget all the award-circuit stories about Murphy losing weight and studying physics and not knowing what a meme is. Strip away all the noise of Oppenheimer and you find something even more remarkable: a wordy, cerebral, three-hour drama that lives and dies not on a big IMAX explosion or even Christopher Nolan’s impeccable sense of storytelling – but on Murphy’s ability to show us a man crumpling under the weight of his own ambition. Nolan’s note on the character, that he was “dancing between the raindrops morally”, might just as well describe all of Murphy’s greatest performances, but here he gives his finest waltz. Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece, sure, but also Cillian Murphy’s.


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