Five or Six Stops on the Woody Harrelson Money Train

With the premiere of True Detective, we take a quick look at Woody Harrelson's evolution...

True Detective is about to start on HBO and I’m excited. It looks great. It looks dark and dank and mysterious and it’s all out in some Louisiana backwoods, which makes it even scarier. HBO throws more into its productions than most movies, maybe not more money, but they throw in something. True Detective will star Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. I think I speak for most New Yorkers when I declare that these are the kinds of people we hope to run into when we venture outside the city. I mean, except when they’re playing sociopaths. Other than that, they have the easy humor and just-good-to-hang-with attitudes who can show us a good time.

Woody Harrelson is always an interesting choice to play a cop. His own father Charles Harrelson, was a mobster. And not just any mobster, he may very well have been one of the shooters the mob hired to whack JFK. The first time a Federal judge was killed in the twentieth century, it was by Charles Harrelson. A contract killer who held off the cops for six hours between snorts before allowing himself to be arrested, Charles was sentenced to two life sentences. He was housed in a supermaximum prison after trying to escape. Woody Harrelson has said that his father split in 1968 and he lost track of his old man until he was nabbed for the Judge Wood killing. Woody called Charles Harrelson a well-read, articulate, and witty man who he could be easy friends with. A character Woody could play without breaking a sweat. Charles Harrison died in 2007.

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The first time I remember seeing Woody Harrelson was on Cheers. I didn’t really watch Cheers, caught a couple episodes but I remember Woody Harrelson being a doofus (as Den of Geek’s Mike Cecchini calls it) and in my head wrote him off as a one-note actor, doing his one bit on what would probably be the only sit-com he’d do and who I’d probably never see again. The next time I remember seeing Woody Harrelson, he was going toe-to-nikied-toe with Wesley Snipes on streetcorner hoops. He was funny. Cool. He wasn’t a one-note comic actor. He could hit other notes. The next thing I remember seeing Woody Harrelson in was Natural Born Killers and I was floored.

I have a personal love-hate relationship with Natural Born Killers. It is one of my favorite movies and I think it’s technically the best thing Oliver Stone has ever done. And he’s done some technically great things. Natural Born Killers hit me on a gut level. So much that as soon as I saw it I had to rewrite something that was about to be staged because whatever Tarantino was huffing when he wrote that, I caught a whiff. Enough of a whiff that I was scared of being busted for plagiarism. I remember being real pissed off at John Grisham when he said Stone was accountable for violence that happened after people saw the movie. I haven’t read or watched a John Grisham related-product since. And I heard some of them were pretty good.

Woody Harrelson was a wild ride in a wild ride in Natural Born Killers. He was a fun sociopath, kind of like Alex in A Clockwork Orange. He captured the imagination and then ran away with it, taking Mallory, Juliette Lewis, along with him and taking people out on the way. So when he hit the screens as Larry Flynt, he hit it rolling and he took Courtney Love into a realm of acting she would never have gotten with a lesser actor. And I’m not talking about Ed Norton, who is never less than perfect. Harrelson brought more depth to the Hustler’s hustler than Flynt might have in person. Harrelson channeled his own activism and made it sting. Not just the repressed rage, the thoughtful righteous contemplation that was as much Miloš Forman as Larry Flynt.

But what about the kids? I can’t very well wake my kids up in the middle of the night to watch People Vs. Larry Flynt and I’d still sleep through Cheers. Sure, I showed them Natural Born Killers when they were too impressionable, mainly to see if they’d want to rob a gas station. It was a social experiment. So far, they’re still good kids, fuck you very much again John Grisham. Woody plays well with the children in Hunger Games. My kids are part of Team Haymitch and I have to say, in a fun movie that I have had to sit through many times, he is the most fun thing in it. Who doesn’t love his drunken soliloquoys? He brings a bit of darkness to the already dank District 11 and the best from Effie Trinket, the character that grows the most.

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Time to nut up or shut up. Zombieland is in the pantheon of zombie pictures. It’s funny and scary and the zombies run fast. It’s not Woody Harrelson’s best role. It’s not even my favorite Harrelson performance. But if I had to explain Woody Harrelson to an alien, it could happen, Tallahassee is the character I’d choose. Harrelson brings a depth of sadness to a freewheeling loner straight out of a Mad Max cartoon. He’s in the business of killing and business is good. Tallahassee lost his pup, Buck, and sees the zombie apocalypse as the start of a quest for comfort food that goes back to his childhood. Tallahassee searches for the last Twinkie with a religious zeal. That zealotry is contagious. Indeed, in my house we have some family rules. One of those rules is that the family can’t eat Twinkies unless we are watching Zombieland. Hence, my kids have watched Zombieland dozens of times. The real tragedy of the splintered end of the Hostess/Drake Empire is that we couldn’t watch Zombieland for two months. We’re all orphans in Zombieland.

If you do find yourself on the road in Zombieland, Tallahassee is the guy who you want to be riding shotgun with. Not so much if you want to drive. “Thank god for rednecks,” he yells after finding a cache of guns, distancing himself from any easy stereotype. Harrelson has sidestepped any easy pigeonholing while carving out his own particular niche. He blows through the bullshit in Game Change without a teleprompter. Was the non-asshole asshole in the Michael J. Fox vehicle, Doc Hollywood. It would have been easier to just make him an asshole outright, but you can’t do that with Woody. In Seven Psychopaths, Harrelson is the one who loves his dog, but he’s also the only psychopath who really scares Colin Farrell.

In True Detective, Woody Harrelson plays a wounded street warrior. A family man who gets broken by his job: being a cop. Woody plays the more sober cop to Matthew McConaughey’s derailed detective. Woody is a bit of an outlaw himself, he’s tested the law by planting hemp where rope cannot be grown. He is a vegan who’d never touch a Drake Cake. Woody Harrelson is very often the best thing in a movie, even when that movie is filled with really good things. Like Twinkies.