Like many filmmakers who get a high level of creative control over their projects, Christopher Nolan has numerous actors he’s used in multiple movies. He’s proven himself to be a filmmaker who knows what he wants and can go about getting it, so it’s unlikely many will question his keenness to collaborate with certain actors again and again. The inimitable Michael Caine is the actor with the most Nolan movie appearances under his belt, with a total of eight (admittedly, a couple only count as cameos). In second place would be Cillian Murphy, who’s shown up in six Christopher Nolan movies to date.
Murphy first appeared in a Nolan film in 2005 and has been in most of them ever since, usually in a supporting or minor role, before finally getting a leading role in 2023’s Oppenheimer. What follows are the half-dozen Christopher Nolan movies featuring Cillian Murphy, ranked from “worst” to best. Calling any of these the “worst” doesn’t feel great, considering they’re all good, but something has to be at the bottom.
6 ‘Batman Begins’ (2005)
Batman Begins is the Christopher Nolan Batman movie that gives Cillian Murphy the most to do as an actor, given how his character, Jonathan Crane (AKA Scarecrow), is a key antagonist here. It might also be the weakest of Nolan’s superhero movies. However, it was still groundbreaking for its time, thanks to how it took its titular character more seriously than previous movies and let Bruce Wayne/Batman operate in a more grounded world that felt a decent amount like real life.
As the title suggests, the main goal of this film was to provide an interesting origin story for the titular hero, though Murphy’s Scarecrow makes a large impression, too. It’s a character that, on paper, might sound ridiculous, but there’s a genuine amount of menace on offer with the character being brought to life here, thanks to the nightmarish visuals brought about when other characters are exposed to his fear toxin. The character was great enough to appear throughout the rest of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, albeit with less screen time in the subsequent films.
5 ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ (2012)
With a runtime of nearly three hours, the final film in Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, rides a line between being spectacular and dramatically overstuffed. It’s a film of awe-inspiring highs and occasionally puzzling lows, picking up numerous years after the previous movie and seeing Bruce Wayne/Batman confront old enemies from Batman Begins while grappling with his legacy and facing new threats, including the hulking, aggressive, and often hard-to-understand Bane (Tom Hardy, another frequent Nolan collaborator).
When it works, it really works, and when it doesn’t work, it can still be kind of fun in a goofy way (and in a manner that’s naturally led to plenty of ironic memes). Cillian Murphy only has a few brief moments to shine, but he truly makes the most of them, appearing as a chaotic judge in a series of trials that take place after Gotham City collapses and its prisoners — Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow included — are released and unleashed. He helps contribute to the sense that Gotham truly is facing its most harrowing threat yet, necessitating even further that Batman is the only one who stands a chance of saving the day in the film’s explosive/ridiculous final act.
4 ‘Dunkirk’ (2017)
From this point onwards, the Christopher Nolan and Cillian Murphy collaborations start getting genuinely good, and quite hard to separate when it comes to quality. As such, a war movie as good as Dunkirk has to settle in the lower end of Nolan-Murphy collaborations, though it has to be stressed that it’s still a must-watch. Nolan brought a genuinely fresh spin to what could’ve felt like just another war movie, throwing aside any notion of a traditional structure and instead making a no-nonsense, very tightly edited, and authentic-feeling war movie about the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk during World War II.
Dunkirk is a movie that manipulates time to create the most tense depiction of warfare it can, following the historical event from three key perspectives, with each taking place at different speeds, though they’re all cut between throughout the movie. At first, the effect is dizzying and maybe even confusing, but it all adds up to a unique and thoroughly engrossing experience. As for Cillian Murphy, he’s not in it a great deal, and his character is unnamed (referred to in the credits as “Shivering Soldier”). Still, he makes an impression in his small supporting role, adequately portraying the terror that soldiers continue to feel, even if they survive harrowing events — in the case of the Shivering Soldier, it’s a U-boat attack that left him stranded at sea.
3 ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008)
Not only is The Dark Knight an all-time great superhero movie, but it also stands as one of the best action films of all time. It’s a non-stop ride, barreling along at a ridiculously fast pace for a runtime of approximately two-and-a-half hours, pitting Batman against his most famous foe: The Joker. It’s the most beloved of the three films in the Dark Knight trilogy. It’s easy to see why because it has an all-time great villainous turn by the late Heath Ledger, features plenty of spectacular action, and has a genuinely tense storyline with several shocking moments that give it the feel of a film where anything could happen at any time.
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Yet, as it’s a movie with a great deal going on, it ultimately ends up being the Nolan Batman film with the least Cillian Murphy. He’s in the film early on, getting targeted by a bunch of Batman impersonators before the real one steps in and puts an end to things. It’s fun seeing him pop up, in any event, with it being something that ties Batman Begins to The Dark Knight nicely. It could arguably be the best Nolan film that Murphy’s appeared in, though it also gives him the least to do as an actor.
2 ‘Inception’ (2010)
With Inception, Christopher Nolan put his unique spin on the heist genre and made a genuinely great action-packed sci-fi movie in the process. Rather than being about stealing something via an intricate and highly-planned mission, it sees a thief (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) assembling a team where their goal is to implant something: an idea, which they’re to do while their target is unconscious, infiltrating his dreams to get him to have said idea.
Their target is Robert Fischer, Jr., who Cillian Murphy plays. It’s a decent supporting role that gives Murphy a solid amount to do, even if the role in question means his character’s not involved in many of the biggest and most action-packed sequences. Nevertheless, Cillian Murphy dedicated himself wholeheartedly to the supporting role and claimed to have researched members of the Murdoch family before appearing in Inception so he could gain a sense of what it would be like to portray the son of a very wealthy person.
1 ‘Oppenheimer’ (2023)
Despite being the most recent movie Christopher Nolan directed, Oppenheimer already feels like a huge deal. Right from release, it instantly seemed like a biopic for the ages, detailing numerous years in the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who developed the atomic bomb during World War II, effectively being instrumental in the two events that ultimately ended the war: the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which took countless lives and led to Japan’s surrender.
But Oppenheimer then had to grapple with what he created and the fact that if used again through warfare, a series of atomic bomb attacks could well be something that destroys the world. The film touches upon all these things throughout its hefty three-hour runtime, spending ample time on Oppenheimer’s life before the war, how he worked with a team to create the bomb during World War II, and the struggles — both personal and external — he faced in the years following the end of the war. Cillian Murphy is the one who portrays Oppenheimer, needing to do a huge amount within a huge movie and pulling it off flawlessly. It’s a career-best performance from Murphy, and among all the Nolan/Murphy collaborations, Oppenheimer comes out on top.
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