Talented Irish actor Cillian Murphy was intrigued by the art of performing from quite an early age. His maiden voyage into the performance arts was in secondary school where he participated in a drama course facilitated by a Theater Company. He then subsequently began pursuing a music career. In fact, Murphy and his brother were offered a five-album record deal which they turned down, as they did not think the sum was high enough to justify signing over the writes to their creations.

In 1996, Murphy changed paths and after watching a stage production of “A Clockwork Orange”, he began to focus his attention on acting. He later starred in several theater productions as well as some independent and short films for a few years until he got his next big break playing Jim in Danny Boyle’s post-apocalyptic horror “28 Days Later”.

The actor, who then became a frequent collaborator on Christopher Nolan films, is now most widely known to play the main protagonist in the British period crime drama “Peaky Blinders”. Cillian Murphy is now one of the most prolific actors in Hollywood, a star of both the big screen and the small screen. Not only that, the 46-year-old actor is set to lead in Nolan’s thriller-biopic “Oppenheimer”, scheduled for a July 2023 release. While we wait for his promising future projects, here’s a look back at Cillian Murphy’s best performances. Given that most people seem to massively love and consider his role as Thomas Shelby to be the best, for this list we’ll be looking at only the feature films the actor has starred in.

Honorable Mention: Cold Mountain (2003)

Cillian Murphy 10 Cold Mountain

High On Films in collaboration with Avanté

“Cold Mountain” was a 2003 epic period war drama written and directed by Anthony Minghella. The film was based on the bestselling 1997 novel of the same name, by Charles Frazier. The plot is deceptively simple, but the film’s grand scale execution, its nuanced characters, and the ensemble of actors make this a memorable film. Based in 1861, a Confederate soldier vows to return to Cold Mountain, his home, and the woman he loves who awaits him there. Along his journey, the soldier’s experiences touch viewers as the horrors of war gradually unfold.

Cillian Murphy’s role in the film was relatively minor, especially when compared with the story’s sweeping scale. In the extensive ensemble cast including big-name actors such as Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, and Renée Zellweger to name a few, Murphy portrays Bardolph, a scruffy soldier who appears only briefly in the film. Director Anthony Minghella brought this cast together so well, all the while keeping the story the center of attention, rather than simply counting on the excitement of a love story full of A-list Hollywood stars. “Cold Mountain”, although not a perfect period drama, is a wonderful tale of the power of love, freedom, and the will to survive amidst the darkness.

10. Red Eye (2005)

Cillian Murphy 09 Red Eye

“Red Eye” is quite possibly most people’s favorite non-slasher film from Wes Craven. It’s full of suspense and dread, and in my opinion, some of the best acting to come out of the horror genre in the mid-2000s. Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy carry the film on pure chemistry and intensely memorable performances that linger after viewing, coupled with Wes Craven’s solid growth as a director which is very apparent during the scenes of growing tension inside the airplane. The movie follows Lisa Reisert (Racheal McAdams), the acting manager of Lux Atlantic a prestigious hotel, catching the Red Eye flight when she comes across the charismatic Murphy. But mind you, he is not just another handsome dude waiting to sweep the lady off her feet. He does sweep off her feet but in a very different fashion.

In “Red Eye”, he steals everyone’s thunder by portraying the dark character of Jackson Rippner. Rippner is menacing but doesn’t look like it until you steal a glance at his steely deep blue eyes. He means business, but he goes about it stealthily in a professional way. Rippner is not into show-off; for him, it is all about getting the job done. Cillian as Rippner is oddly seductive — something that you don’t often say about the person sitting right next to you who might actually be a trained killer.

9. Sunshine (2007)

Cillian Murphy 08 Sunshine

In Danny Boyle’s space mission SciFi, we get an ensemble cast of talented actors- each who represents different ideologies and is motivated by differing degrees of logic. Set in the year 2057 when the sun is dying, and the earth is subsequently freezing, Murphy plays Capa- the only character who really has any kind of an arc. Boyle along with the now famous writer Alex Garland cited their influences for “Sunshine” to some sci-fi classics: “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “Alien” and “Solaris”. The underrated film back in the day was met with generally positive reviews, however, was not considered a box office success.

Cillian Murphy absolutely nails the various mannerisms one’s supposed to master while being inside the space suit for a film of such scale. In fact, in the scene where we see his character- Capa- fall and unable to get up, the director had a crew member sit on the rig without Cillian’s knowledge which gave us the claustrophobic reaction we get in the eventual cut (as stated in the director’s commentary by Danny Boyle). He is shown to be motivated by unflinching reason throughout the film and ends up being one of the couple of characters of Icarus II to reach the sun at the very end. But at a cost- his instincts seem to have changed. Capa has recurring nightmares of falling into the sun and though he does not spend significant time at the observatory, he goes into space on multiple occasions, getting closer to the sun each time. Once he succeeds in detonating the payload, instead of being eviscerated, the fiery, sun-like explosion freezes in midair and we see Capa stop cowering for his life. He then smiles, embracing the light having found a sense of greater peace.

8. Breakfast on Pluto (2005)

Cillian Murphy 07 Breakfast at Pluto

In the 2005 film, “Breakfast on Pluto” based on the book of the same name, Murphy played Patrick, who was abandoned as a baby and left for a local priest to find outside of the church. As a teen, Patrick identifies himself as transgender. Now, “Kitten” Brady, a drag queen with an attitude from a small town in the Irish Republic, close to the border. He’s the secret son of the local priest, played by Liam Neeson, who got his housekeeper pregnant and arranged for the resulting baby to be farmed out to an uncaring foster mother.

In today’s time of political correctness, a cis man playing a transgender woman would not be praised in the same way as Murphy’s performance was back in 2005. The film mixed dark humor with camp comedy; this romps through Patrick’s life with enthusiasm and an eye for glamour. Murphy looked startlingly pretty in blonde curls and lip gloss. Though his character is so exaggerated that it becomes hard to engage with as a fully rounded protagonist. That’s why it eventually doesn’t reach the height of his other performances.

7. A Quiet Place Part II (2020)

With “A Quiet Place Part II”, director John Krasinski gave us yet another solid follow-up to one of the most successful and critically acclaimed post-apocalyptic horror flicks of the past many decades. This time, the stakes were higher, featuring an expansion of the world-building we got in the first film and a new character called Emmett, played by none other than Cillian Murphy. The film does what an ideal sequel should do best and it’s unfortunate that most of us didn’t get to watch this one in a theater.

Cillian Murphy as Emmett played a family friend of the Abbotts before the monsters had invaded Earth. Following the events of the first film, Evelyn (Emily Blunt) and her two children face the horrors of the outside world as they move on from their family home. On their journey, they stumble upon Emmett and plead for his help. Emmett, who is grieving the loss of his own family, takes cover in an abandoned warehouse. His true backstory for the most part remains mysterious, but the weariness that Murphy brings throughout the film leads to a satisfying character arc.

6. Dunkirk (2017)

Cillian Murphy 05 Dunkirk

In one of the industry’s most dependably commercial big-name director’s “Dunkirk”, Cillian Murphy plays a soldier with PTSD rescued from the wreckage by British civilians. Using a risky, even radical narrative structure that splits the storytelling into three intercut chronologies of different duration, the film dramatizes the calamitous climax of the attempt by the British Expeditionary Force to help French, Belgian and Canadian forces stem the Germans’ stunningly swift sweep through France in the spring of 1940.

Billed only as a “Shivering Soldier,” Murphy gives an excellent performance in playing a relatively small role in “Dunkirk. The film follows several different characters’ stories, which come together in the film’s third act. Murphy brilliantly embodies the character who is left shell-shocked and plays a lone survivor of a sunken ship. Realizing they’re all headed back to Dunkirk, he demands they turn back, ending up in a scuffle with the young man who helps rescue him. Murphy’s character has to deal with severe post-traumatic stress, and his performance remains utterly captivating.

5. The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012)

In Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, we see the compelling origin story of the caped crusader. A frequent collaborator on Nolan’s films, Cillian Murphy stars as Dr. Jonathan Crane/The Scarecrow. Oh, fun fact- Murphy had originally auditioned for the role of Batman, but ultimately the role went to Christian Bale. Hardcore fans of the comics couldn’t be more glad, as Murphy turned sinister in a matter of seconds with his angelic blue eyes. This twisted man can’t have been easy to embody, but the believable and borderline-maniac performance makes the movie much more enjoyable for fans.

Crane is a shady psychopharmacologist working at Arkham Asylum. He’s the one who secretly creates a fear-inducing toxin, which he then plans to unleash on the city of Gotham. It’s an interesting character, to say the least, because, in Nolan’s version of the more grounded-in-reality Batman, Crane becomes one of the few characters who watch Gotham disintegrate bit by bit with each passing entry in the trilogy.

4. 28 Days Later (2002)

Before writer Alex Garland and director Danny Boyle went on to make “Sunshine”, they made another film in 2002 starring Cillian Murphy, that almost single-handedly reinvigorated the zombie-horror subgenre. With “28 Days Later”, they managed to bring a fresh and innovative perspective to the zombie trope. Cillian Murphy starred as Jim, a bicycle courier who wakes from a coma to a desolate Britain after a human-made “rage virus”, that starts showing its effects in just 20 seconds, sweeps through the country. That 20-second limit serves multiple valuable story purposes, adding more and more tension to each scene. This meant that the screenplay would wholly rely on the actor’s capability of delivering those moments of genuine horror; the fate of the characters in this film strictly depends on their understanding of human nature and how they react under stress.

Jim stumbles upon infection in a church, which is also where he meets Selena, who brings him up to speed on what he missed while he was comatose. Murphy has stated in an interview that he would return for a third installment of the 28 Days Later franchise, but Danny Boyle has opened up that it would only happen depending on Alex Garland’s availability and interest. The film took on a greater meaning almost two decades after its release during the initial days of the COVID-19 pandemic, as people across the globe mirrored the kind of paranoia and uncertainty Jim went through in this highly relevant film.

3. The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006)

British filmmaker Ken Loach’s 2006 war movie centered on the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921) and the Irish Civil War (1922-1923)- a tumultuous period when the British Government did everything within its power to prevent the Irish Republic being formed. Following December 1921’s Treaty which proved to be greatly divisive, led to the eventual splitting of the Republican movement, thus, sparking a civil war. Cillian Murphy here played Damien O’Donovan, a medical student about to leave for a job at a reputable London Hospital. His character arc gets fueled by the atrocities he witnesses being committed by the Black and Tans. So, he instead joins the local IRA faction with his brother Teddy. Once a peace treaty is reached with British forces, however, the brothers are divided in mind and end up fighting opposite one another.

“The Wind That Shakes The Barley” was a critical success and even though it did not have the rich emotional texture of Loach’s other films, it still helped Murphy churn out a standout performance. There’s a looming sense of melancholy in the images, complemented by an evocative score from George Fenton and Murphy’s understated yet incredibly effective performance. In broad brushstrokes, during the first half especially, Loach shows how Damien is so appalled at the roughhouse tactics of the Black and Tans.

2. Inception (2010)

“Inception” reunited Christopher Nolan and Cillian Murphy in this dream-within-a-dream science fiction epic. The film co-stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Dom Cobb, a thief who has the rare ability to infiltrate people’s dreams and spy on their subconscious thoughts. Cobb is offered a chance at having his criminal record expunged, but first, he must plant an idea into Robert Fischer’s subconscious. Murphy plays the son of Maurice Fischer, who is on his deathbed, leaving Robert as the only heir to his multi-billion dollar empire.

Cobb accepts the mission, however, someone anticipates his every move. Murphy’s acting fits well with the other cast members, including big names like Tom Hardy, Elliot Page, and Joseph Gordon Levitt. Nolan’s films often get so grand in their scope and scale, that it’s necessary for the audience to have an emotional latch in a rather grand and complex web of narrative. Murphy brilliantly brings all the needed emotions to the table. The closure he’s able to attain with his dying father, by the end, might surely overwhelm the viewers even upon rewatch in an otherwise constantly moving film.

1. Oppenheimer (2023)

In the days leading up to the release of “Oppenheimer,” a clip of Cillian Murphy auditioning for the role of Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” went viral. Murphy was seen both in the suit and as Bruce Wayne, which almost makes it hard to believe that the 3-hour biopic only marks the first time the 47-year-old actor has played the lead in a Nolan movie. The result is not just a career-best performance from the actor but one of the best performances given by any in a Nolan film.

Given Murphy’s eerily close resemblance with the controversial physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, it wasn’t hard to imagine him in the role. But his story remains one of a complicated man burdened by the weight of his own guilt and creation. Nolan has repeatedly described Oppenheimer as “the most important person who ever lived.” As we watch the immediate sidelining of the physicist from the American authorities once he makes the bomb, we watch the voices in man’s troubled psyche begin to supersede his outspoken arrogance. Murphy’s performance unerringly embodies Oppenheimer as a scientific prodigy haunted by the terrible consequences of his own achievements.

A speech that the character makes to his colleagues and subordinates after the atomic bombings especially remains one of the best scenes Nolan has ever directed. The scene not only gives the movie its haunting recurring motif but also puts Murphy at the center of the film’s massive 70mm lens, capturing his little eye twitches with his body language, suddenly acknowledging the callousness of his actions – ones that speak volumes as an extra dimension folds upon him. It’d be hard seeing Murphy top this shattering performance.

Related to Cillian Murphy:

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10 Best Ken Loach Films
All Batman Movies, Ranked

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Cillian Murphy Links: IMDb, Wikipedia

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