Tom Sizemore And The Dangerous Burden of Desperation

Tom Sizemore took up so much space, more than his share. When he’s onscreen, he fills it with the dangerous burden of his desperation. He’s just exactly smart enough to know he’s not smart enough; just smart enough to know he’s damaged and not quite smart enough to know how to fix it on his own. So he listens, almost better than any actor of his generation you can feel the intensity of his attention. He holds that attention like a fakir holds a cobra’s stare. If he looks away, it’s gone, and maybe he’ll have missed the answer he’s been waiting for — and maybe he’ll be dead. He’s so effective as a supporting character because his attention makes everyone else in a scene with him the keeper of a closely-guarded secret. In his company, they are vast.

We believe what he believes. We believe the next word out of their mouth will save him from the demons that haunt him: his addiction, his violence. They are his saviors if only he can keep his attention on them for long enough to figure out if its true. Watch him smile when he knows there’s a joke but he’s not in on the joke. Halfway through Natural Born Killers his murderous, opportunistic cop Scagnetti walks through the prison holding celebrity spree-killers Mickey and Mallory with vile warden McClusky at his side. Sizemore is listening the way he does as McClusky boasts and preens. He tries not to notice that all around them the prisoners mass to a riot that’ll see both of them murdered. Sizemore is swollen by the moment, bursting with braggadocio leavened by an almost touching and incongruous vulnerability. He’s flattered to be the recipient of what he wants to be wisdom, but there’s something gnawing at the back of his head that he’s in terrible danger.

He conveys all of it in the set of his shoulders and the angle of his head. It’s in the nervousness of his smile that comes too quickly and fades too slowly. When an unruly prisoner is wrestled across their path by a gaggle of guards, jostling Scagnetti roughly and knocking him off his path, he laughs not because he’s brave, but because he’s terribly afraid that the bubble of his belief is about to be popped. That’s how we’re introduced to his Sgt. Horvath in the opening of Saving Private Ryan, trying to keep his balance in the middle of a duck boat being rocked on the way to Omaha Beach and telling his men to keep distance upon landfall because “five men is a juicy opportunity, one man is a waste of ammo.” He delivers it with exactly the right amount of fragile authority. He has faith that he will fall and has further faith that chaos will catch him when he does. He is a product of chaos and chaos will welcome him home when his time with us is done. That was Sizemore’s immense gift: he was able to express the irreconcilable contradiction of his nature as the foundational archetype of masculinity, and he attracted artists working in these masculine spaces, telling epics of the last wretched moments of broken men. 

His great decade was the ’90s. During it, he worked with Oliver Stone (Natural Born Killers), with Kathryn Bigelow three times (Blue Steel, Point Break, Strange Days), with Michael Mann (Heat), Carl Franklin (Devil in a Blue Dress), Tony Scott twice (True Romance, Enemy of the State), Ron Shelton (Play it to the Bone), John Milius (Flight of the Intruder), and Martin Scorsese (Bringing Out the Dead). As his demons caught up with him, he saw his time in the A-list bleed out into direct-to-video thrillers that were awed by his presence in them. Increasingly, he was like Jake LaMotta in his later years; he stalked his way through material like a battered prize fighter who still remembered the steps even when he wasn’t able to dance them anymore. I was always excited to see Sizemore when he showed up in one of these later projects — between 2000 and his death, he appeared in over 170 movies — but whenever he appeared, I held in my head the treacherous gravity of the dozen or so years where Sizemore was special.

“Increasingly, Sizemore was like Jake LaMotta in his later years; he stalked his way through material like a battered prize fighter who still remembered the steps even when he wasn’t able to dance them anymore.”

Look at the moment an hour into Michael Mann’s Heat when his bank robber Michael swears his fealty to his leader Neil (Robert De Niro) only to have Neil advise Michael to step aside, to go home to the security he’s won for himself, to leave a risky job to others with less to lose. Michael blinks too many times, he runs his tongue around his lips and looks at the rest of the gang. It’s terror at being left behind and, in a moment, it’s clear it’s never been about the money for Michael; it’s been about the importance Neil has given to his life as a man with whom other men could trust their lives. There aren’t a lot of actors who could be this naked and then, in a chuckle and a hardening of his features, who could be tough enough to say that, for him, “the action is the juice.” It’s incredible. The more so because in this moment, and in every second he’s on the screen, he is the star of a film that has one of the most intimidating casts for any film in the 1990s.


In Bigelow’s astonishing, propulsive Strange Days, Sizemore is a dirty private investigator, cooking up a scheme to frame his friend for murder and revealing his plan in an extended monologue at the end where he holds the stage until his lover interrupts him. Watch Sizemore’s eyes again — his sudden uncertainty when his patter is disrupted by a woman he wants to protect. “Supposed to go downstairs, baby,” he says. He sighs in irritation, then responds to her teasing, then he’s menacing again, then aroused, then… he is an entire range of reactions at war with one another. Remembered as one thing, I would challenge you to say what that one thing is. He is a multitude.

My favorite Sizemore performance though is as paramedic Frank Pierce’s (Nicolas Cage) tweaking ex-partner Tom in Bringing Out the Dead. Scorsese introduces him in motion, emerging from his ambulance cab to R.E.M.’s “What’s the Frequency Kenneth” to beat the living shit out of a patient, a druggie in the middle of a bad trip, who’s offended him in the past. Later, Frank pounds on the side of the ambulance and says “this old bus is a warrior, Frank, just like us. I have tried to kill him many times and he will not die. I have a great respect for that.” The way he looks when he says this, I know he’s talking about himself — the old bus his body and the addictions, the bad wiring, that repeatedly push him into the worst outcomes for himself always, and for the people he loved often enough. His Tom says “There’s blood spillin’ in the streets! Let’s go have some fun – look up in the sky, it’s a full moon.” He’s cranked beyond endurance and Scorsese speeds up the film in time to his mania. Film can’t contain his sickness, reduce the temperature of his fever. He is entirely present here. I think sometimes of this time for him as an extended confessional: a desperate attempt to save his soul through these cinematic acts of strenuous contrition. Tom is Sizemore at his most undiluted and he is terrifying. The last we see of him, he’s beating his beloved “old bus” with a stick, screaming “die” with each impact. Sizemore was in incredible pain. His expression of it is raw. Too often, damage is his legacy.


So this is less a hagiography for Tom Sizemore the man — and his million shattered pieces — than it is an appreciation of the work he leaves behind. He put his imperfections on display, and deconstructed what it meant to be a violent man medicating himself to oblivion. His work preached a gospel of the healing power of telling the ugliest truths. Not for him — for people coming to his work at the right moment and recognizing that same tilt of the head and glaze in the eye in the mirror. Too smart not to know they’re in trouble, not smart enough to know how to keep themselves out of it. At some point or another, that’s all of us.

In Carl Franklin’s Devil in a Blue Dress, Sizemore plays another man who betrays someone who trusts him. In one scene, he holds a knife to Easy Rawlins’ (Denzel Washington) eye. It trembles because he’s scared, even though he has the drop on Easy. He’s scared because he has so much violence in him he might not be able to control himself. He’s the perfect villain because he’s afraid of the darkness in himself. When he laughs to kill the tension, he’s not in control of that, either. It spools out of him like silk from a spider in freefall. Sometimes the silk catches on something. And, you know, sometimes it doesn’t. I place Sizemore with Chris Penn, actors with a penchant for self-destruction that could take over a film entirely with the extraordinary, incendiary power fo their lifeforce. They burn so ferociously, they inevitably flame out. But in the time they are alight, they are beautiful.

Walter Chaw is the Senior Film Critic for His book on the films of Walter Hill, with introduction by James Ellroy, is now available.