By Paul Bradshaw
Did you know that Robert Pattison used to be in the Twilight movies?
Even if you were living under a rock during the late ’00s, you’ll still know that Pattinson used to be a teenaged vampire because every review of his films since feels the need to point it out. Just like Daniel “Harry Potter” Radcliffe, Mark “Luke Skywalker” Hamill, Elijah “Frodo Baggins” Wood, he carries the weight of his most famous role everywhere he goes – at least until he plays Batman next year…
His latest, The Devil All The Time, is about as far from Twilight as possible, which must have been part of the appeal. A rural Pulp Fiction set across three decades of hate and misery in the Ohio backwoods town of Knockemstiff, The Devil All The Time is a pretty apt title – with God-fearing Old Testament horror hanging heavily over a plot filled with murder, sacrifice and crucified pets. Unpleasant but compelling, it’s a sprawling thriller crowded with great performances from the likes of Tom Holland (Marvel’s Spider-Man), Sebastian Stan (Marvel’s Bucky Barnes), Jason Clarke (Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes) and Eliza Scanlen (Little Women).
Pattinson, in fact, only has a small role in the film, but he still feels like the lead thanks to a swaggering performance that out-weirds and out-creeps everyone else around him. A sex-pest southern preacher who wrings everything he can out of his small-town influence, he makes his entrance in a frilly pirate shirt, slickly dipping two fingers into a gravy pot as he smooth talks the church widows with one eye on their granddaughters. Affecting a high-pitched voice and a spidery walk, he seems marginally larger than life – overplaying his part just enough to feel odd without tipping over into parody. In a long film crowded with famous faces and big events, Pattinson is the one thing that stands out.
It’s not the first time he’s done it this year either. Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is about as strait-laced as blockbusters get – a coolly grown-up sci-fi with no room for grandstanding – but Pattinson still managed to play the film’s background time-cop as a raffish gentleman sidekick that he modelled on English intellectual Christopher Hitchens. John David Washington might get the film’s Bond role, but it’s Pattinson who gets most of the wit and charm, pushing his affectations to the limit again in another performance that seems to be deliberately different from everything else he’s ever done.
Most importantly, it’s different from Edward Cullen. Appearing in Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire before Twilight (and in every teen magazine as a model before that), Pattinson was already a rising star when he played Cullen for the first time in 2008. After four sequels and one highly publicised relationship with his co-star, Kristen Stewart, he appeared to have found himself stuck in a role that he didn’t particularly like – when a reporter asked him in 2012 whether he’d ever taken anything from the set to remind him of his experience he replied, “my dignity”.
Speaking to Vanity Fair around the same time, just as the first part of the split finale, Breaking Dawn, was hitting cinemas, Pattinson already sounded worried about the future. “There’s a massive reward,” he said, “But being in such a specific pigeonhole is very strange. Having a persona people recognise, it’s the thing that probably gets you paid the most – but it’s also the thing that virtually every actor in the world doesn’t want. ‘Cause, like, no one would believe me if I wanted to play something ultra-realistic, like, a gangster or something.”
The answer, then, was not to go for realism but for abstraction – characters that seemed bigger than Twilight even if the films they were in were much smaller. Spending the last decade choosing interesting, challenging, unusual roles in films with something to say, Pattinson carved out his own niche as an indie actor.
The same year he finished Breaking Dawn: Part 2 he was at Cannes with David Cronenberg for Cosmopolis – an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s subversive novel about a billionaire drifting through Manhattan in the back of a limo. Next came a bleak Australian western (The Rover), stylish Denis Stock biopic (Life), an unrecognisable turn behind a beard in The Lost City Of Z, and work with Werner Herzog (Queen Of The Desert), The Safdie Brothers (Good Time) and Claire Denis (High Life).
Last year saw him overplay The Duke Of Guyenne (complete with panto pantaloons and a thick French accent) in The King, and underplay Ephraim Winslow opposite Willem Dafoe in gothic arthouse horror The Lighthouse. Throw his menacing Reverend Preston Teagardin into the mix from The Devil All The Time and it’s hard to paint a picture of who Pattinson even is – an ever-changing coatrack of characters in different, difficult films that he plays with fierce sensitivity and curious oddness. After 10 years, it looks like he might finally be starting to bury the legacy of Twilight. So why is he zipping up a Batsuit and jumping right back into another big studio franchise?
Soon to be the new Bruce Wayne in Matt Reeves’ dark, grounded take on the DC comics, the fan backlash has already started – with the first trailer for The Batman digging up old online comments about Pattinson’s ’emo roots’ (made worse by Batman’s new eyeliner). Whether he’s doing it because it looks like a genuinely interesting take on the character (it does), or because he finally saw an opportunity to eclipse one franchise with an even bigger one, don’t expect Pattinson to make the same mistakes he made when he was 21. He might be swapping his pigeonhole for a Batcave, but he knows better than anyone how to escape if he wants to.