His smile can light up the screen, but he keeps that in reserve. Approaching the age of 40, Matt Damon still looks as fresh-faced as he did when he first drew wide attention for his supporting role in Edward Zwick's Courage Under Fire, released in 1996. He conveyed great admiration for a certain character, even while suggesting a layer of doubt that hid below the surface. It was a fine role, but it wasn't his best.
He made a big splash the following year as a young lawyer in Francis Coppola's adaptation of John Grisham's The Rainmaker, and as a genius with issues in Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting. The latter, based on a script that he wrote with his good pal Ben Affleck, provided him with a showcase dreamed of by all actors, and earned him an Academy Award nomination. (He and Affleck won, instead, for their screenplay.) The two parts established him as a leading man -- he demonstrated confidence, charm, and a measure of vulnerability -- but they weren't his best roles.
He teamed with Ed Norton in John Dahl's Rounders, and was overshadowed in the process, before taking a major stride forward with Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley. Damon came very close to capturing the elusive essence of the titular character, created by Patricia Highsmith, leaving behind the trail of a haunted, demented man. Damon was very, very good, and it was his best role up to that date. But he's done better since then.
He had leading roles in two misfires, coincidentally directed by actors (Robert Redford's The Legend of Bagger Vance and Billy Bob Thornton's All the Pretty Horses) and then breezed through Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's 11 as a less-experienced loose cannon with light fingers.
The Ocean's trilogy would serve as a good counterweight to Damon's Bourne trilogy of action blockbusters (The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum), all released over the past nine years. The Ocean's films showed Damon's lack of ego, as he dialed down the energy and charm to play third (and sometimes fourth or fifth) fiddle to George Clooney and Brad Pitt in stylish, slapdash, projects. He easily amped up his star power in the Bourne franchise, which provided plenty of intelligent thrills and allowed him to dominate the proceedings as a very clever underdog. As well-played as those films are, neither Linus Caldwell nor Jason Bourne is his best role.
(Ocean's 11 appears to have opened him up to playing more light, comic parts, as he seemed to have a blast playing Greg Kinnear's conjoined twin in Stuck on You and sneaking in a cameo as a sneering punk rock singer in Eurotrip.)
As good as Damon was in Stephen Gaghan's Syriana, Robert DeNiro's The Good Shepherd, and, especially, Martin Scorsese's The Departed, not to mention his Academy Award-nominated turn in Clint Eastwood's Invictus, I'm sticking with my view that Steven Soderbergh's The Informant! provided Damon with his best role to date.
In that film, the marque beauty transformed into an ordinary-looking businessman. As I've written before on this site: "Damon plays Matt Whitacre, the cinematic version of a real-life character, a scientist who became the vice-president of a chemical company and then turned informant for the government in the early 1990s. Damon doesn't perform a complete disappearing act, to the point that we don't recognize him. True, he gained 30 pounds for the role and his character wears a toupee. The extra pounds make him look 'doughy' and soft. Yet he doesn't look excessively obese and he doesn't walk around with his shirt off; he just looks rather ... ordinary, a normal, thickening man from the middle of the country, with a wife and children and a house and a car (make that cars)."
Damon "has the deft ability to shift his charm downward, in service of the role. He doesn't turn all his lights off, just selected ones, just enough to dim the wattage of his stardom. All his skills as an actor are needed in The Informant!, which has an increasingly jaw-dropping story to tell. Scott Weinberg described it as a 'quietly odd performance.' It's also hilarious. Damon hits every note, blending into the story while retaining an innate goodness that makes you root for him even as you slowly realize you probably shouldn't. It's brilliant; I just don't know how he does it."
With the passing of nearly another year, I still feel that way. And now we open it up to you, dear readers. What are Damon's hidden gems? Do you prefer his blockbusters to his indie flicks? What's your favorite Damon role?