Features and Columns · Movies

Andrew Garfield and the True Meaning of Compassion

Between ‘The Social Network’ and ‘Under the Silver Lake,’ the frequent leading man upends genre expectations and puts our empathy to the test.
Andrew Garfield Under The Silver Lake
By  · Published on October 9th, 2020

Welcome to Filmographies, a biweekly column for completists. Every edition brings a working actor’s resumé into focus as we learn about what makes them so compelling. In this entry, we spotlight the filmography of Andrew Garfield.

Andrew Garfield is the epitome of a generous actor. Having consistently produced commanding and striking performances since the mid-aughts, his approach to variously complex – and at times, inexplicable – characters brims with empathy.

Garfield’s old stomping grounds in British television nurtured the early years of his screen career. A short bumbling stint in the 2005 series Sugar Rush and an adorably shaky attempt at an American accent in two episodes of Doctor Who mark his more memorable moments on TV at the time.

Another of Garfield’s earliest screen gigs – Mumbo Jumbo – banks on a similar goofy lovability. The satirical comedy tells of three paranoid youths preparing for some version of the apocalypse. The short film lacks any discernible sense of rhythm or flow. Yet Mumbo Jumbo‘s confusing setup doesn’t preclude the buoyant charisma that Garfield utilizes and would continue to hone over the years in subsequent projects.

Lions for Lambs (2007)

Still, not everyone has the bragging rights of featuring in a Robert Redford film upon their initial jump into the spotlight. Garfield’s big-screen debut in Lions for Lambs is packed with star-studded names amid its mid-sized budget, but even between Redford, Meryl Streep, and Tom Cruise, the young actor unequivocally shines.

Lions for Lambs is divided into three concurrently running vignettes that collectively comment on the increasingly disillusioned state of American politics during the War in Afghanistan. Garfield, who plays a privileged, clever, but ultimately disaffected college student named Todd, spends most of his time onscreen debating his political science professor, Stephen Malley (Redford), over a culture of cynicism gone rampant.

Malley wishes to kindle a spark of hope, drive, and purpose in his exhausted student, repeatedly commending Todd’s brainpower and pointing out his many social advantages compared to other students. But as the two argue back and forth, we as the audience are made privy to Todd’s true anger beneath his shell of nonchalance.

This burgeoning fury makes Garfield stand out as the most heartfelt performer in Lions for Lambs. From his first moment onscreen, the actor plays up a visage of mischief that ideally matches up with Redford’s own cheekiness. Matthew Michael Carnahan’s screenplay then beckons Garfield to slowly unmask his character’s innate antsy earnestness, which the actor does so with incredible conviction.

Boy A (2007)

That same year, Garfield netted himself a Best Actor BAFTA TV Award for what remains his most harrowing and depressing performance to date. John Crowley’s Boy A is adapted from Jonathan Trigell’s novel of the same name. The indie drama is a gale-force wind of emotional intensity that poses fundamental questions about the messy paths of redemption between concepts of heroism and villainy.

The movie begins when Garfield’s character is released from a secure facility under the name of Jack Burridge. Through a series of flashbacks, viewers get a glimpse into his difficult childhood – back when he went by Eric Wilson and was either continuously picked-on by other kids or outright ignored by his distant parents. However, young Eric soon finds kinship with a local troublemaker, setting terrible events into motion that would affect the trajectory of his life well into adulthood.

Garfield’s central performance makes Boy A so incredibly heart-wrenching. The film hinges on his ability to sincerely depict Jack’s sweet and impressionable nature. Each of Garfield’s sheepish glances, awkward gestures, and jittery stances comes from a place of authenticity. At the same time, he layers on the character’s anxiety, grappling with both Jack’s deeply misguided impulses to act out in indignation and his immense guilt over his criminal past. Boy A is – if nothing else – complicated enough to simply humanize the many conflicting shades of its protagonist, and it wholly succeeds thanks to Garfield’s raw honesty.

Red Riding (2009)

Despite getting his scenes cut from another big-name ensemble vehicle (Justin Chadwick’s The Other Boleyn Girl), the Red Riding trilogy nudges Garfield more firmly into a more traditional leading role. This three-part TV adaptation of David Peace’s “Red Riding Quartet” books comprises a series of intertwined murder mysteries set in Yorkshire that entangle themselves with themes of corruption and organized crime.

Garfield features most prominently in Red Riding 1974, the first film of the trio. The actor headlines the movie as Eddie Dunford, a naïve crime correspondent who is largely characterized by his work-oriented ambitiousness as well as a penchant for easy, flirtatious charm. Eddie is fresh-faced enough to inspire a sense of annoyance in anyone over his incessant cockiness. That same quality invites us to root for the character unequivocally.

The combination of Eddie’s immaturity, impulsiveness, and pride only ignites an idle powder keg of violence and greed deeply-rooted within the fabric of Red Riding 1974. As he dives headfirst into a bleak underbelly, he becomes increasingly haunted and unyielding. Garfield keeps Eddie quick on his feet. The character adapts quickly but realistically to the shocking and brutal education that he undergoes, a spiral that is simultaneously painful and spellbinding to withhold.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

That year continues to be massive for the blossoming Garfield. First, I consider the short film Air. The 18-minute thriller would later be included in the 2012 compilation movie Heroes and Demons. However, it stands up on its own as a chilling little drama following Garfield as a foreign student wandering through the vast expanse of Texas on a solo hiking trip. Air – complete with oppressing strangeness and creepy child co-star – is the closest thing Garfield comes to starring in a conventional psychological horror movie.

Conversely, Terry Gilliam’s sprawling fantasy The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus recaptures some lightness in Garfield’s résumé. At least, a sense of sanguinity exists in his performance as the adorable, charismatic barker named Anton. He is but one member of the ailing eponymous traveling troupe roaming the streets of London.

I would be remiss not to mention that The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is hugely influenced by Heath Ledger. Ledger’s celebrity status, spectacular acting capability, as well as the circumstances of his untimely death undoubtedly maintained buzz around the film.

That said, the gangly Garfield unexpectedly steals the show. In depicting Anton as the ungainly, slightly irritating love interest, his thoroughly intuitive performance lends soul-stirring benevolence to the movie. Garfield seamlessly bridges the gap between the high-concept make-believe themes and the emotional resonance at the heart of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

I’m Here (2010)

Spike Jonze’s I’m Here is the most notable of Garfield’s short films so far. Although basically an ad for Absolut Vodka, this sci-fi romance wheedles its way into our hearts, aptly illustrating the assimilation of civilization with technology.

I’m Here is melancholic and meditative, examining ideas of loneliness and connection through the eyes of Garfield’s robot protagonist. Shy, achingly polite, and observably isolated from the world around him, he goes through the motions of everyday life, commuting daily between his mundane job in a local library and equally boring, unadorned apartment. Suddenly, he meets a female robot and finds love.

More than anything, Jonze’s film lets Garfield explore a more muted character. Both Sheldon’s quiet personality and his mechanical nature depend on it. Garfield has always nailed affection, but it is his portrayal of hushed hesitancy and germinating emotional insights that make Sheldon all the more distinctive.

Never Let Me Go (2010)

I’m Here functions as the perfect precursor to Mark Romanek’s dystopian 2010 feature, Never Let Me Go. These films comparably occupy the same genre spaces of science-fiction and romantic drama. They deliberate the quandaries of survival, too. However, there isn’t much flashy technology to necessarily ponder over in Romanek’s devastating film. Rather, Never Let Me Go compels viewers to fully bathe in the fundamental, ethical drives of its characters’ dire emotional circumstances.

Garfield steps into the shoes of the softhearted Tommy D. An emotionally volatile young man, he is raised from birth to be an inevitable organ donor – conditioned to willingly give up his body in service of humankind. There’s an airiness to Tommy’s personality – a sweetness that makes him susceptible to suggestion compared to the rest of his peers.

Tommy represses the more explosive side of himself to better fit in with those around him, including his best friends and potential lovers (played by Carey Mulligan and Keira Knightley). By the time he reaches adulthood, his honesty is dampened into a largely tentative persona. Regardless, through wide teary eyes, tight shoulders, and a graceless gait, Garfield has no trouble in expressing Tommy’s multitudes of feeling. Brimming with hope, desire, and despair, the character represents a dreadfully relatable portrait of humanity.

The Social Network (2010)

Garfield rounds out the 2000s by starring in one of the most influential films of all time, and we’re only halfway through his filmography! David Fincher’s The Social Network has become an ageless period piece merely one decade after its release. The part of its premise that focuses on the founding of Facebook is not nearly as compelling as the power struggles that simmer beneath the surface.

This definitely includes Garfield’s intrinsically committed depiction of entrepreneur Eduardo Saverin. By now, so often have fans of the actor witnessed his knack for endearing vulnerability. It feels almost entirely expected to immediately give Garfield the benefit of the doubt once he steps into the frame.

That said, Eduardo’s earnest efforts to maintain his relationship with Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) appears unnerving the more we witness it. While cultivating and realizing his own aspirations of success in the business world, Eduardo makes bad choices in the name of love.

Now, part of The Social Network‘s success whittles down to Aaron Sorkin’s searing dramatic writing, which so effectively unravels the threads of friendship in the Internet age because it is so invariably humane to virtually everyone involved. Ultimately, Garfield graciously tackles these flaws in his outwardly charitable character. The actor expertly guarantees that Eduardo’s empathy begets the downfall of the very thing he so ferociously wishes to protect – his seemingly unbreakable bond with his best friend. The fact that Garfield was so terribly snubbed during the subsequent awards season still stings.

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012-2014)

Considering the fervor surrounding Garfield’s cumulative success, his brief stint as a superhero then hardly comes as a surprise. At the time, it felt like he was making a great career choice, even from my perspective as a fan. I vividly remember the sheer excitement rattling through the entire experience of finding out one of my favorite actors had been cast as Peter Parker / Spider-Man.

Garfield’s own passion and elation compounded that era of Spidey adaptations. His love for Peter ensures that although The Amazing Spider-Man is an imperfect franchise, his rendition of its leading man would be well-rounded and unequivocally real.

It’s easy to pigeonhole Marc Webb’s offerings in Marvel’s Spider-Verse into the “dark and gritty” category. Yet, the fact of the matter is that the first film has so much heart. The Amazing Spider-Man is leaps and bounds ahead of its successor because it crucially gives Garfield the space to explore Peter’s traumatic beginnings. The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which ultimately rushes to exponentially prove its own apparent “epicness,” should have more gradually and carefully expanded upon that lore.

The actor absolutely nails Peter’s physicality – everything from the film’s high-impact action sequences to the goofier aspects of the character’s behavior fits him like a glove. Furthermore, reading between the lines of Garfield’s particularly sardonic take on Peter’s origin story, we unearth the actor’s vested interest in sustaining the timbre of the saga’s emotional beats.

99 Homes (2014)

Garfield’s frustratingly short-lived tenure as Spider-Man serves as a pertinent warning of the contemporaneous highs and lows of mainstream success. As a result, his subsequent return to dramatically-weighted projects feels like a given.

Ramin Bahrani’s thriller 99 Homes is Garfield’s homecoming (pardon the pun) to more harrowing cinematic territory. He leads the project as Dennis Nash, a single father who lives job to job as a construction worker. After struggling to make payments on the family home, the Nashes face eviction. Dennis eventually finds himself abandoning his morals for a chance at economic stability, fighting to protect his family’s safety, authority, and self-determination.

Steeped in pulsating contemplative anxiety, 99 Homes introduces a distinct maturity to the actor’s filmography as a whole. Garfield employs confidence and intense argumentativeness to emphatically portray Dennis’ desperation as a failing breadwinner. There is no ill intent behind his fraught decisions. Nevertheless, Dennis is far from a saint. Witnessing Garfield wrestle with the ethical conundrums of his choices in Bahrani’s film isn’t just a wake-up call for the character. Instead, there is true relevance in 99 Homes’ social commentary.

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Garfield continues to make a name for himself dabbling in several leading roles, even ones that are about as orthodox as they come. Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge is a prime example of Oscar-bait and indeed garnered Garfield his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. The film, based on the true story of US Army corporal Desmond Doss, nosedives into traditional biographical drama territory with ample spectacle, myth-making, and masculine bravado.

The movie tracks Cpl. Doss’ career as a combat medic. From his Seventh-day Adventist childhood to his declaration as a conscientious objector to his superiors, we observe the overwhelming vigor and earnestness that drives him across battlefields at home and abroad.

Doss is a character of instinctual heroism, so much so that he often seems too good to be true. But all credit goes to Garfield for transforming an admittedly hammy script as well as the movie’s tiresome, unrelenting footage of gory carnage into a holistic, moving character study. The meditative qualities that he brings to Doss create a full-bodied performance that convinces us as much of the healing ruminations of faith as it does of the staggering realities of war.

Silence (2016)

Conversely, Martin Scorsese’s Silence is the antithesis of glorified faith-based cinema. The film, which in itself is a decades-old passion project of Scorsese’s, threads together a delicately thoughtful, if also tumultuously excruciating, narrative about the subjects of belief, suffering, and absolution.

Conceptually, this grueling one-hundred-and-sixty-one-minute epic is remarkably basic. Garfield stars as Sebastião Rodrigues, one of two Jesuit priests who set out in search of an old mentor, Father Ferreira. What troubles Rodrigues most is that Ferreira has reportedly renounced Catholicism while captive in 17th century Japan.

So begins an arduous odyssey that brings even the most unshakeable believer to their knees, but not in ways one would think. No doubt that we as viewers blatantly discern Garfield’s physical and psychological transformations for his role. Rodrigues’ efforts to ostensibly save one of his own is an almost predictable remark on his humanity. Still, the real test is a more interior assessment of spirituality, which Garfield flawlessly personifies using his established gift of humble conviction.

Breathe (2017)

Andy Serkis’ directorial debut, Breathe, is a surprise. In some ways, this biopic about disability advocate Robin Cavendish has all the fixings of an expectable colonialist tear-jerker. The film zooms in so closely on its charming protagonist that we are predisposed to fall in love with him and stay invested in his story.

Garfield, who dons the lead role, is as dashing as he’s ever been, effortlessly selling the self-assured roguishness of his version of Cavendish. Pair that with subtle alterations to his vocal intonations and overall mannerisms and he is, once again, thoroughly magnetic.

But moreover – and perhaps most peculiarly – Breathe refuses to agonize its audience scene after scene. Garfield indulges in quirkiness and mirth, especially when he’s opposite the incomparable Claire Foy. The movie is a true two-hander between them and both performers bounce off of each other’s obstinate, yet affectionate energies to superb effect. Thus, Breathe becomes a heartening experience to lavish in, sans any overt saccharine qualities.

Under the Silver Lake (2018)

Just when we think we have Garfield figured out, he throws a curveball shaped like Under the Silver Lake. Given that Gia Coppola’s Mainstream and Michael Showalter’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye are up for soon-ish releases (at the time of writing), it isn’t a stretch to call David Robert Mitchell’s anticipated It Follows successor a forecast of the actor’s unhinged predilections in the coming years.

For now, we only have Mitchell’s Lynchian-esque movie to dissect, and it’s more than enough. The neo-noir thriller – a categorization that must be used sparingly – is genuinely tough to pin down. Thematically, Under the Silver Lake tells a rough story about identity and conspiracy within its eerie setting of East LA. Garfield’s leading man, Sam, is thrown into the fray without any warning besides a universal sense of foreboding built up around his weird, detached life.

This results in Garfield’s most detached performance to date. His doe-eyed expression, which has often become synonymous with emotional complexity, shifts into something akin to morbid curiosity. Garfield is almost impenetrable in this one, which ups the film’s creep factor. Somehow, despite Sam perpetually nursing a growing fixation on cults and lifestyles, Garfield remains so personable that it feels impossible to abandon this character. Maybe it’s because he seems so damn helpless in the movie. For better or worse, he ensures that we are on that same headache of a pilgrimage alongside him.

Garfield is just getting started. His filmography showcases how much more room he has to grow, priming him for longevity in the entertainment industry. He has repeatedly sought out narratives that we can consider timeless. Sure, his résumé is noticeably lighter compared to some of his peers who’ve worked within a similar time frame. However, there’s hardly any filler in there. Rather, each of Garfield’s works renders a unique, enthralling interpretation of humanity.

Related Topics: ,

Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)