'Venom' and the Physicality of Tom Hardy

Tom Hardy-Bronson-SPlit-Publicity-H 2018
Magnet Releasing/Photofest; Sony Pictures Entertainment; Warner Bros./Photofest
The star is known for his physical transformations, so what does it mean for him to play two characters who share one body?

With Venom, Tom Hardy tackles a physical challenge different from those that have come before. He plays Eddie Brock, a journalist who achieves symbiosis with an alien looking to share his body, in a role that forces Hardy two be of two minds in one body.

It's an interesting proposition for the actor, who has made physical transformations and physicality a key part of his performances. Bulky and imposing, Hardy as the villainous Bane is perhaps his most memorable physical look. And yet, the villain from The Dark Knight Rises (2012) bears uncanny similarity to two earlier characters, from Bronson (2009) and Warrior (2011). For all three, his body emanates a palpable strength, but his performances also call to what those hulking bodies represent, like repressed pain or animalistic mentalities, elevating them beyond simple images of strength.

In Bronson, Charles Bronson is a performer, quite literally, with director Nicolas Winding Refn offering a stage for his protagonist to recount his life. Within this framing, every aspect of Bronson turns to performance, including his body. The brute force of his bare-knuckle boxing becomes such, as does his art, especially the unnerving image of his body covered in black paint. But there’s also an underlying feral quality to Bronson. At one moment early on in the film, still frames of Bronson violently fighting prison guards cycle by as what sounds like the growls of a dog play beneath, lending his body a sense of the uncontrolled and vicious within small prison cells and corridors.

There’s something animalistic about Bane, too, but in the light of pain rather than performance. His brick-like body — not really sculpted, more so hardened — feels excessive. To supporting villain Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn), even a simple hand on his shoulder threatens death. But exactly how Bane’s massive figure is essential to his character comes into focus only once it’s revealed that he wears the mask to deal with terrible pain. Pain and strength come into tension for Bane, much like they do for Batman himself. And once Batman exploits how Bane manages his pain, damaging his mask, Bane unleashes tiger-like fury that makes the chaos of his pain explicit.

Hardy’s body in Warrior plays on both pain and performance, but it’s much more understated. The entire family is an image of trauma, and Hardy’s Tommy deals with his trauma through his martial arts, releasing pent-up anger through excessive force in the ring. His body acts as a shield from the pain left by an alcoholic father, dead mother and a military tour in Iraq, as well as a performance that he’s still strong despite what he’s been through. So, while the final fight is certainly cliche, it’s also a necessary moment, especially fighting his brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton), where Tommy learns to no longer hide by confronting his pain and not resorting to aggressive physical instinct.

While Hardy’s body is not of the same type in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), there’s a raw, instinctual, animalistic physicality to it as well. In a postapocalyptic wasteland, humanity is sparse, despite humans having survived. Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is arguably the true protagonist of the film, but Fury Road also paints a picture of Max regaining his humanity. Much of the beginning of the film is marked by Max’s ferocious grunts and savage violence, as well as his body being exploited, chained and whipped around like a ragdoll. Slowly, though, through his journey with Furiosa and the hope for humanity that it provides, Max recovers mental control, allowing for compassion and empathy. He’s a blood bag at the film’s start, but he’s a blood donor by its end.

Hardy has also explored the deranged that can’t be redeemed. Frontiersman John Fitzgerald, from The Revenant, hides a brutal scar beneath his bandana. While some scars, like Hugh Glass' (Leonardo DiCaprio), mark a weathered and enduring spirit, Fitzgerald’s is clearly representative of his venomous interior.

2015’s Legend, in which Hardy plays two different types of gangsters, the Kray twins, within identical bodies, is Hardy’s first heightened exploration of the body. Reggie Kray is smooth and composed, while Ronnie Kray is blunt and wild. And yet, in an almost slapstick fight between the two, and throughout the film, the violence of both and the result of their violence is very much the same.

But Hardy doesn’t necessarily need violence or even force for his body to play a fascinating role. On occasion, he doesn’t even need mobility. In Locke (2014) and Dunkirk (2017), Hardy’s characters are stuck within machines, to a point where they nearly become those machines. Driving a car for nearly the entire film, Hardy’s Ivan Locke is searching for answers, heading straight toward a goal that drives a wedge within his family. Like Locke’s construction profession, the film is an image of stability that risks crumbling, and it is Hardy’s body that embodies that throughout as he breaks down, lashes out, and tries to gather himself while behind the wheel of a machine.

His RAF pilot in Dunkirk offers an even tighter marriage between body and machine. The German pilots aren’t even visible, their bodies and planes one in the same. As Spitfire pilot Farrier, though, Hardy’s limbs engage with his plane harmoniously. Simple insert shots of his hand pressing the trigger to fire his plane’s guns connect him to the force of the machine he sits in. And the persistence of his eyes mirror the persistence of his plane’s pursuits. Where the dynamic takes it a step further is when Farrier’s plane wants to give out, running low on fuel, but he decides to press on, his body overruling the seemingly more powerful machine.

Through Dunkirk, there has always been some sort of grounding to Hardy’s characters and their bodies, even with Bane. But Venom is some other creature, representing a significant development in Hardy’s investigation of the body, as that’s the crux of this performance.

Early on in the film, local convenience store owner Mrs. Chen (Peggy Lu) tells Hardy’s Eddie Brock that “mind is body.” What Hardy has to achieve in Venom is the true marriage of those two. He has to communicate that this alien has entered his character’s mind, an incredible suspension of disbelief, as well as make Brock’s own internal reactions to the alien explicit. And Hardy is startlingly committed to it. While superfluous exposition and midfight quips threaten to bog down his efforts, he pulls it off all through his body. His performance is, for the lack of a better word, lived-in.

Hardy lets go of control altogether, clumsy and flailing, transforming into a marionette of sorts. But he also captures Brock’s physical assimilation to Venom. In an early fight scene, Venom clearly has the control of Brock’s body, but as the film goes on, Brock learns to adjust, surrendering himself to Venom or helping where he can. Hardy’s body truly feels as though it’s the host of two minds.

In part, it's his investigation of the body that allows Hardy to jump from an experimental biopic to a sports drama, from a massive superhero film to an intimate character study, from a war film to a supervillain movie. Like his character Eames in Inception (2010), he's something of a forger, a star who can project whom he needs to be.