Summer of Nathan is a tribute to the work of former Dissolve (and current freelance) writer Nathan Rabin, curated by Sam “BurgundySuit” Scott.
Dissolve commenters and 😞 Solute writers and commenters will be writing their own versions of his article series; here is a recent entry from gillianren. Staunch Characters pays tribute to the members of cinema’s great but too often ignored roster of character actors.
Kim Coates began his film career in The Last Boy Scout; really, he began it in the trailer, playing that classic action movie redshirt, Guy Who Shouldn’t Have Annoyed the Protagonist. Not much to see there; he seems to have built the character from the necklace outward. Still, he’s memorable. Director Tony Scott gives him a moment where he’s thinking “should I still be doing this?” and he plays it well, but his impact doesn’t come from acting. Like a lot of great character actors, he doesn’t look like anyone else; film is about what we see and talent will only get you so far. Those eyes are as off-color and as unsettling as Meg Foster’s, and his cheekbones are as sculpted as Guy Pearce’s. Like Pearce and occasionally like Robert Pattinson, there’s some femininity mixed into his masculinity, something feline and slinky, but unlike them you could never call him beautiful.
He had a lot of roles since then, and I remember Black Hawk Down the best, getting a brief moment of sketching an illustration for a children’s book before the fighting starts. When another soldier says “they are not supposed to scare the living shit out of the children,” Coates has no problem with the criticism or that he scares the children (“besides, my daughter loves this”); it’s the kind of instant characterization this movie needs, where everyone has to suggest someone distinct in about twenty seconds of screen time. That kind of strangeness, and comfort with the strangeness, anticipates his best role.
Like a lot of actors in the post-Sopranos era, Coates would find that role on a TV show, Kurt Sutter’s biker soap opera Sons of Anarchy. As ZODIAC MOTHERFUCKER has noted, Sons gave full roles and personalities to so many great character actors of our time: Mark Boone Junior, Tommy Flanagan, Kim Dickens, Coates, and Ron Perlman, never better than as the murderous, arthritic patriarch of the Sons. Sutter wanted to get the right look for his club, greasy and shaggy but still a bunch of guys who could be romantic heroes. (Everyone except Charlie Hunnam qualifies; there is no universe in which the president of a Northern California motorcycle club can also be considered for Christian Grey.) Coates’ age helps him; the fineness of his features gets played against the lines on his face. Coates misses beauty partly because of those deep-set eyes, making him look like evolution didn’t fully catch up with him, and that works better with the sense of experience. Like a lot of men on the FX Network, he’s much more interesting than pretty. Coates’ Alex Trager (“Tig”) was the most interesting of the Sons, and by the end the most moving of them all.
Sutter pushes his characters and actions beyond extremes into absurdity; it’s not enough that Tig is a killer and an outlaw, he’s a necrophiliac too, and got raped by his father as a child. (“Well, that explains it,” says fellow Son Juice; it’s so very Sutter to use abuse as a punchline.) Yet Coates plays Tig without a hint of condescension or distance, never over- or underacting him. He’s friendly on the surface, and that’s genuine, but you can always sense there’s something off about this guy; nothing he says or does comes as a surprise. You’d like to have a drink with him but you’d be a bit worried that he could kill you at any moment.
Coates’ Tig can be better appreciated by comparing it to the current performance and character he most resembles: Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter. Hannibal and Sons of Anarchy have a lot in common, two heightened, violent shows with a lot of distinct atmosphere, and a lot of music, a medieval taste for artful deaths, and an aggressive disregard for plausibility in pursuit of their effects. Oh, and they both went overseas in their third season. Tig and Hannibal are both charming, funny, and smart guys who simply have a few psychological and ethical connections permanently miswired, and Coates and Mikkelsen play them as completely sane. That’s so key to both roles, because both characters know themselves just fine, but at no point do they consider themselves crazy. They’re both a little bemused and a little disappointed at the world for not being on their wavelength, but they’ve made their peace with that. (Javier Bardem’s Chigurh in No Country for Old Men has a bit of this feeling too.)
That sense of being both utterly strange, almost alien and still completely real brought two storylines to the fulfillment of Sons’ promise. As a staff writer, Sutter brought a necessary chaos to The Shield, but left on his own with Sons, that too often spun into incoherence and (worse) boredom. (For a full discussion of Sons, what went right and what went so wrong, please listen to ZMF’s post-mortem interview, still the best criticism of it.) But when Tig has to watch his daughter burned alive (it’s revenge; Tig killed a crime lord’s daughter), Coates makes the scene work. He doesn’t go for any kind of wild-eyed screaming or NOOOOOOOOOing. He’s not that loud but his cries sound genuinely animal, more like a wounded dog. (Actually, “canine” better describes Coates than “feline.”) He plays perfectly against the stoicism of Harrold Perrineau as the crime lord. When we end on a shot of a zonked Tig holding her charred, still-smoking corpse, it’s the sort of thing Sutter always pursues but rarely achieves, an image simultaneously insane and believable, a tableau that belongs in a medieval morality play.
The second storyline began as what felt like a one-scene joke, a chance to bring in Walton Goggins* in drag, give him the name Venus van Damme (a callback to The Shield), and have him deliver the line “have you ever gotten a blowjob from a Southern girl with a big dick?” When Tig falls for Venus, though, Coates and the Goggins make it something real. (To Sutter’s credit, Venus’ history of abuse gets explored in depth.) They are so sweet together, and Coates plays Tig in these scenes with a child’s sense of wonder; nothing Tig does could surprise us, but this surprises him. It’s an old-school romance, in the sense that Tig and Venus are truly right for each other. No court decision or Facebook rainbow will ever make these two normal people, and that’s what they give to each other. Like the burning, Sutter goes farther over the top here than anyone would dare, and Coates makes it land on something real. He does what sounds impossible: he makes Tig completely alien and completely sympathetic. Like a lot of great character actors (Forest Whitaker in The Shield is another example), he can be good anywhere else, but he needed a distinct universe to become great. He was the most necessary actor in Sons, and Sons was the most necessary role for him.
*Walton Goggins has been one of the great actors in the Second Golden Age of television and has received praise from many others; what strikes me the most is how distinct his characters are. Shane Vendrell, Boyd Crowder, and Venus van Damme are three variations on the genteel Southerner, but they have different needs, mannerisms, and reactions. Most impressive of all is the way Goggins modulates to the atmospheres of the different shows, the classic drama of The Shield, the Elmore Leonardian comedy of Justfied, and the medieval soap opera of Sons, fitting in to every ensemble like he’s always been there. Here’s hoping Quentin Tarantino finally gives him the film role he deserves in The Hateful Eight.