Rare are those performances that stay with us long after a film or a show have run their collective course, but with just days remaining in 2016, that is precisely the question that needs to be answered before it’s curtains for another year.
Whose performance shone brightest and will stand the test of time to be talked about and admired decades from now?
Little did we know when the year began that it would not be an epic television program or film with sprawling drama designed with award season in mind, but rather a performance from a relatively unknown actor in an eight-part Netflix series that would tower above the competition.
Though “Stranger Things” represented a career renaissance for Winona Ryder and showcased the talents of Millie Bobby Brown, a young actress with Oscars in her future, it was David Harbour’s portrayal of Hawkins Police Chief Jim Hopper that left connoisseurs of moving picture awe struck.
For a character to stand the test of time, it must be flawed, yes, but also complex and conflicted in such a way that its chosen performer can demonstrate a wide range of emotional capability that serves as the catalyst for an arc that leaves everyone who sets eyes on it desperately rooting for them to succeed.
Harbour’s Hopper not only met, but in a way, destroyed that template. A testament not only to Harbour’s skill as an actor, but to the character conjured by the Duffer Brothers and the immaculate abilities of the “Stranger Things’” writing staff.
In a lot of ways, Hopper was an anti-hero. Audiences were introduced to a binge-drinking, pill-popping, burned out cop who was not only indifferent but abrasive and almost intolerant of children. In short, Hop appeared an asshole of the highest order who was not only disliked almost immediately, but certainly didn’t seem up to matching wits with CIA-sanctioned chicanery.
Before the opening credits ran for “The Body,” however, Hop had transitioned from loathed to loved.
In less than four episodes, Harbour demonstrated that Chief Hopper was a far better policeman than audiences (or the federal government) had originally thought, offered support and reassurance to a son and brother who desperately needed it and was patient and tender with another character to whom he related far too well, a shattered parent.
Virtuous characters are often respected and admired, but love and reverence are reserved for those flawed enough to be viewed as genuinely human.
On top of the less than flattering adjectives that applied to Chief Hopper early on, audiences would learn that he had lost a child to cancer, which led to his burn out, divorce and loss of ambition and hope.
There was nothing Hopper could do to save his own daughter, he had little choice but to stand by and watch her slowly slip away. When it came to Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), however, Hopper channeled Clarice Starling – if he could save just one — spare one family that agony, it may not silence the raging winds in the chasm of his soul, but it might make facing another day a little bit easier.
What made Harbour’s portrayal so special was in its authenticity. Hop felt real, there was nothing exaggerated or over the top, because it was a performance built around subtle glances and gestures, even a little rough around the edges and completely devoid of inspirational speeches or a singularly heroic moment.
Hop just fought, literally and figuratively. By overcoming his own demons, he earned the briefest moment of peace for himself and in the process, saved Joyce and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) from a hell that he understood intimately.
And in his final effort to revive Will, after innumerable knockout blows and a negotiation only a grizzled officer was capable of, we laid eyes on a man whose desperation was reminiscent of Ed Harris trying to save Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in The Abyss.
Let’s face it, we were teary-eyed with hands cupped over our mouths as we tensely leaned closer to the screen and said it with him — “Come on, kid!” More than that, however, our collective thought was “Please don’t let this happen to him again.” It was the emotional conclusion of a journey for which we would have followed Hop anywhere.
Was it the character concept or the writing or the flashbacks? Sure, but above all else it was the brilliant portrayal of David Harbour who brought Jim Hopper to life in the single finest performance of 2016. The Hawkins Chief of Police is a character that will live far beyond eight episodes or next year’s second season, but rather adored and discussed forever.
If Harbour didn’t own a trophy case before, he better start shopping now, because maximum amounts of well-deserved hardware will be en route in short order.