Who’s your favorite Ewan McGregor? Is it young Trainspotting Ewan — skinny as a Twizzler, a cigarette hanging tragically from his mouth? Is it Velvet Goldmine Ewan — taking Iggy Pop–esque homoeroticism to Todd Haynes’s lofty heights? Is it 2000s movie-star Ewan, looking stoic and handsomely American in such films as Moulin Rouge!, Black Hawk Down, and Big Fish? Or is it sensitive Ewan, being tackled by life’s big questions in Mike Mills’s Beginners? (It’s not Star Wars Ewan. That isn’t an option.)
Since his turn in Trainspotting, McGregor has been in that weird subcategory of actor that exists just above “household name” and just below “star.” He’s assumed many guises and acted in many movies, ranging in quality from “really, really good” to Mortdecai. But he’s also evaded true definition.
As an actor of protean ability, he’s been able to slide into all sorts of different parts and films, and yet he still hasn’t quite found the one that you would call defining. There is no Travis Bickle or Daniel Plainview in the McGregor filmography. When you talk about McGregor, many people will still zero in on the nearly two-decades-old Trainspotting, and while not a bad thing, it’s telling.
Although the “–aissance” suffix is being tossed around a little too lightly following Matthew McConaughey’s vertiginous rise from Kate Hudson foil to everyone’s cool older brother, McGregor could be poised for, at the very least, his own version of inventing the phonograph. Since Beginners — which, beloved though it is by the people who’ve seen it, made less than $6 million in theaters — he’s spent the last few years starring in misfires like Jack the Giant Slayer and August: Osage County, Hallmark cards like The Impossible and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, and the failed Noah Baumbach adaptation of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Aside from Steven Soderbergh’s superb beat-’em-up Haywire, it’s been a fallow few years for McGregor. But the trade winds are starting to shift.
If you haven’t been paying close attention to Australian crime thrillers, you’ve missed some excellent work — movies that are to “gritty” what Titanic is to “sad.” Directors like David Michôd and John Hillcoat have been pumping out films like Animal Kingdom and The Proposition that get lodged under your skin like little pebbles. The newest addition to this subgenre is Julius Avery’s Son of a Gun, starring McGregor as an armed-robber Übermensch who takes a young prisoner under his wing. Son of a Gun is being distributed in the U.S. by A24, the dedicated moviegoer’s new favorite stamp of approval, and while it doesn’t have the depth and pathos of Michôd’s work, or the savagery of Hillcoat’s, Avery shows a gift for character relationships. Even when they bleed into cliché or silly emotionalism, the crooks and orphans in Son of a Gun still exist inside surprisingly nuanced and uncertain orbits with each other, particularly for an otherwise deterministic, if impressively made, heist movie.
Aside from Avery’s pacing and set pieces, though, the best part of Son of a Gun is McGregor. Bearded and muscle-bound, the Scot plays maniac well: He stalks around safe houses and slaps people across the face, always looking like he’s an inch away from losing his mind completely. At the same time, he puts out a weathered confidence — McGregor as thief is convincing and appropriate, and his performance suggests violence in a way that he never has onscreen before. It hints toward a ferocity that puts him on the same level as the other ragers who fill these Australian movies, guys like Joel Edgerton and Ben Mendelsohn and Guy Pearce; in fact, that animalistic mode seems to suit him just as well as stardom’s cusp.
But return to stardom’s cusp he will. After Son of a Gun, McGregor’s next movie is the Sundance hit Last Days in the Desert, where he plays both Jesus and the Devil. Putting aside for a second the sheer degree of difficulty in playing Jesus at all, McGregor has to portray him during his time wandering the desert, with all the attendant interiority and struggle. And he’ll be in front of reigning Oscar champ Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera, meaning that his suffering and angst should be as beautiful as they are brutal.
It’s a role without real precedent in McGregor’s career — the kind of acting job that seems to announce a new level of aspiration, and he’ll follow it in kind. There’s no more natural fit than a Scot to take on the role of one of the greatest Jewish American characters in literature, not to mention direct the adaptation of one of the greatest Jewish American novels in literature, by one of the greatest Jewish American writers in literature, and McGregor, who is now our greatest Jewish American, will star in and helm American Pastoral, currently in preproduction.
Apart from these many layers of irony, American Pastoral is the type of project that lacks a ceiling or a floor; it could be a Best Picture contender that becomes a part of the canon, or it could buckle under the weight of its own self-regard.
Before American Pastoral comes to make us all tangle with our own mortality, McGregor has the long-gestating Natalie Portman vehicle Jane Got a Gun coming, a movie with some promise now that it’s been taken over by Warrior director Gavin O’Connor. Long past are the days of salmon fishing in the Middle East. The Swede McGregor is having his come-up, and even if it doesn’t work, at least he already got Mortdecai out of the way.
Kevin Lincoln (@KTLincoln) is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.