Robert Pattinson’s career is coming full circle. After elevating himself to movie stardom as a brooding (albeit sparkly) heartthrob vampire in the Twilight films, Pattinson will return to franchise filmmaking in 2021 as the latest iteration of Bruce Wayne. (Assuming production on Matt Reeves’s The Batman can resume after the actor tested positive for COVID-19.) While some DC fans might scoff at the thought of Edward Cullen playing the Caped Crusader, we are talking about two characters who prefer to come out at night and always look like they’re playing the greatest hits of My Chemical Romance in their heads on a loop. He might not sparkle, but let’s face it: Bruce Wayne is a moody weirdo all the same. From the Batman trailer, it’s clear Pattinson gets it:
As exciting as it’ll be to get the actor’s take on Batman, though, real Pattinson Heads know that his true calling has been films that are a bit more niche. At his very best—and where he’s operated for much of the time between Twilight and The Batman—Pattinson is a chameleonic character actor who just so happens to have, according to science, the most handsome face in the world. But that perfectly sculpted face belies a desire to consistently confound expectations and provoke viewers. This ostensibly archetypal movie star works best when he’s keeping us on our toes, and being strange as hell.
For his latest, Pattinson joins an absolutely stacked ensemble—featuring Tom Holland, Eliza Scanlen, Bill Skarsgard, Sebastian Stan, Jason Clarke, Riley Keough, and Mia Wasikowska—in Netflix’s The Devil All the Time, an adaptation of the Gothic novel of the same name from Donald Ray Pollock. It’s a sprawling film tackling big ideas, chief among them the role religion plays in rural communities and how evil can be condoned when filtered through the prism of faith. The Devil All the Time is uncompromisingly bleak stuff—I will never forgive this movie for what it does to a very good dog—and that mood is matched in the ensemble’s somber performances.
But Pattinson proves to be the exception to that rule. As a predatory preacher in small-town Ohio, the actor seems to relish the chance to play a preening snake oil salesman—the kind of person who sees faith as the best means of manipulation and coercion. The phoniness of the preacher’s behavior is matched only by Pattinson’s hilariously over-the-top Southern accent and sacrilegiously poofy dress shirt. I’m not sure whether he deserves an Oscar or a Razzie; perhaps both.
The sheer campiness of Pattinson’s performance runs counter to everything else in The Devil All the Time—it’s the equivalent of a player ignoring a coach’s set play to do whatever the fuck he wants. But the effect of Pattinson’s work here is almost contagious: I couldn’t get enough of it, and suddenly I understood why all those parishioners couldn’t see through the preacher’s obvious facade. They were simply too beguiled to care.
The Devil All the Time is not the first instance of Pattinson appearing in a Netflix production where it appears he got a totally different memo from everyone else on set. In David Michod’s ultimately underwhelming The King, which was supposed to be another star-making turn for Timothée Chalamet, it’s Pattinson’s supporting work as the Dauphin of France that steals the show from his costar. Sporting Prince Charming–like blond locks and a French accent so thick and egregious it sounds like he’s constantly choking on a mouthful of escargot, Pattinson almost single-handedly saves The King—one ridiculous line reading at a time. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Robert Pattinson with Pepé Le Pew’s voice call Bowl Cut Timmy Chalamet someone who has, and I quote, “giant balls with a tiny cock.”
But just as well as Pattinson can call attention to himself, he can disappear into a role that requires something a bit more understated. In yet another supporting turn for James Gray’s masterful The Lost City of Z, Pattinson plays the aide-de-camp Henry Costin to Charlie Hunnam’s fabled real-life British explorer Percy Fawcett, who obsessed over finding an ancient lost city in the Amazon. Hiding behind a scraggly beard and old-timey spectacles, Pattinson is virtually unrecognizable, but carries a rugged grace while constantly following Fawcett through ordeals in the jungle that most would consider a living nightmare. It’s only when Costin starts a family of his own that he refuses to keep searching for Z with Fawcett, a choice Pattinson conveys with quiet consternation. Costin questions whether Z can provide his companion all the answers he hopes to find by discovering it; to this day, Fawcett has never been found.
While Costin stayed surprisingly levelheaded, Pattinson’s performance in The Lighthouse shows what happens when the actor gets to demonstrate a full-on breakdown. A film that’s taken on a tragicomic resonance in the midst of quarantine, The Lighthouse is a two-handed showcase for Pattinson and Willem Dafoe to shout, fart, bludgeon seagulls, chug their body weight in booze, masturbate to a mermaid scrimshaw, hallucinate actual mermaids, and lose all sense of time while stationed on a remote lighthouse in the late 19th century. To chew as much scenery as Willem goddamn Dafoe is an accomplishment in and of itself—Pattinson’s chemistry with his costar is so intense, bizarre, and occasionally homoerotic that I half-expect to read stories about the two both fighting and making out when the cameras weren’t rolling. Months into quarantine, I’m having similar conversations with my cat when she doesn’t like the wet food.
The Lighthouse was the latest stage of the actor’s rebrand from the star of Twilight to the unofficial face of indie studio A24, which also has acquired and distributed the Pattinson-led trifecta of The Rover, Good Time, and High Life. (The studio has already scooped up the North American rights to The Stars at Noon, which sees Pattinson reunite with High Life director Claire Denis.) It’s within this arthouse space, and in taking on bizarre supporting roles that appear antithetical to the interests of someone who has the look of a prototypical movie star, that Pattinson continues to impress. Call it the Jake Gyllenhaal Principle: He might be good-looking, but Robert Pattinson never seems more content than when he can get his freak on.
Despite his taking on one of the most sought-after superhero roles in Hollywood—not to mention starring in a time-bending Christopher Nolan movie—I hope filmmakers continue to let Pattinson cook as a weird character actor trapped in a leading man’s body. (While I haven’t seen Tenet because I care about my well-being, the fact that he plays a character who stole Nolan’s haircut is promising.) He’s sneakily become perhaps the single most exciting actor working right now; someone whose body of work radiates true chaotic energy. There’s no reason Robert Pattinson’s post-Twilight career can’t continue to sparkle, like a horny vampire in the sun.