Movies Television

Nobody plays a dead brother better than Jon Bernthal

What is it about Bernthal that lends itself so well to the role of big brother?

Last week, while the wife was laid up in bed with COVID along with our two-year-old son, who was running a fever and somehow managing to throw up whole chunks of bologna—yeah, things got rough, but everyone is fine now—my two-month-old daughter and I found ourselves in the rare position of being in complete control of the television.

For well over a year now, that spot has been dominated by my son after he wrestled control away from my wife, whose reign atop the remote control hierarchy lasted an impressive sixteen straight years—precisely how long we’ve been together (what a coincidence, huh?).

In light of this vacancy atop the pecking order, coupled with the fact the two-month-old isn’t great about articulating her opinion on matters such as this just yet, that meant the decision about what to watch was left solely to me.

So, we ended up binging the entire first season of FX/Hulu’s The Bear in one sitting, which might be the best thing about the show. Its abbreviated runtime makes it easy to consume all at once.

(It’s also one of the few shows that benefits from this binging model; The Bear has a certain rhythm to it, and rather than be pulled out of that rhythm for a week at the end of each episode, it’s best to let the thing wash over you and drown you in its world. Also, for those worried about exposing a two-month-old to the explicit language used throughout this show, I watched every second of it with headphones on, so, please, chill the f*** out.)

The first season of The Bear is currently streaming on Hulu

My initial plan here was to give my take on The Bear until I realized two things. One, the boys over at Taking It Down already did a phenomenal job covering the show, and I highly suggest you give ‘em a listen and become a regular.

And two, everything that’s to be said about the show has already been said because, unbeknownst to me until gathering my notes to write a review, The Bear was released on June 23, almost two months ago at this point. Given how quickly things move these days, that might as well be a year.

And here I was thinking I was caught up with the culture. So it goes, though, life with little kids. All the cool movies and shows of the moment pass you by, escaping you. Meanwhile, you’re stuck in an endless bubble of Bluey and Sesame Street and every Disney movie ever made. As great as those shows and movies are, they quickly lose their luster and charm upon their 717th viewing. And that number is only a slight exaggeration, by the way.

Anyway, rather than repeat all the praise that’s been deservedly heaped on The Bear, let’s pull apart a thought I had while watching the show. Specifically, this thought…

Nobody plays a dead brother better than Jon Bernthal.

Why did this pop in my head, you ask? To answer that question, we need to look at Bernthal’s similar cameos in The Bear and the underrated gem The Peanut Butter Falcon (spoilers ahead for both).

In both stories, Bernthal plays an older brother whose death looms over the narrative, leaving the younger brothers—Carmen in The Bear and Tyler, played by Shia LaBeouf in The Peanut Butter Falcon—left reeling from the grief of his passing, forcing them to navigate the troubled waters of their lives in the absence of any sort of guiding, settling force.

Jon Bernthal as Mark in The Peanut Butter Falcon

This settling presence is what Bernthal’s character acted as for both men. He was a calming force, a tie back to a simpler time. To put it simply, he was a father figure. Even in the case of The Bear, where it’s made clear the relationship between Carmen and Michael was frayed towards the end, Carmen still credits his brother for fostering his love of cooking.

And keeping on this father-figure theme, it’s Michael’s tough-love nature of banning Carmen from the restaurant that fuels Carmen into becoming one of the best chefs in the world.

Another through-line in both stories is this sense of legacy Carmen and Tyler feel compelled to step into and carry on. In The Bear, this legacy is obvious: it’s the restaurant. Carmen feels obligated to turn the struggling sandwich shop around, even though the better, more logical business move is to cut the losses and sell the place to Uncle Jimmy.

Carmen can’t bring himself to do this, of course. Because as much as The Bear is about grief and addiction and the fast-paced, chaotic inner workings of the restaurant business, it’s as much about one’s commitment to family—both in the one you’re born with and the one you create.

In The Peanut Butter Falcon, this sense of legacy is more subtle and less specific, primarily because Tyler isn’t the driving force of the movie’s main arc. Instead, that belongs to the main character of Zak, a young man with Down Syndrome who runs away from his care home hoping to become a professional wrestler. Along the way, he meets Tyler, who agrees to help him on his journey, setting Tyler on both a literal and figurative quest to become a “good guy.” This idea of being a “good guy” becomes a motif of the film, and it’s something Tyler believed his brother to be.

Bringing this around to Bernthal, what is it about him and his acting that lends itself to this type of role: The role of big brother?

The main thing is that his sheer physical presence commands the screen. He’s got a hardened face that looks like it’s seen its fair share of fistfights and a crooked boxer’s nose to prove it. He’s got a piercing set of eyes. A muscular physique. When looking at him, the cliched term “ruggedly handsome” comes to mind.

He looks like a tough guy through and through. Probably because that’s exactly what he is. (I would be reminisced if I didn’t include this little anecdote I ran across: apparently, Bernthal once threatened legendary film director Oliver Stone, telling him, “I will beat your fucking ass right here on this set.”)

And it’s that physical presence that aids him in playing the role of an older brother. Older brothers usually assume the role of protector, and few men in Hollywood look like they fit that bill better than Bernthal. But in both stories, even though he looks tough, he’s not acting tough. That command of the screen is there, sure. But something else is shining through, something that traditional tough guys in Hollywood—think like a John Wayne or Clint Eastwood—rarely ever showcase. And it’s something Bernthal has in spades: There’s a warmth to his performance. A tenderness.

Take the cameo in The Peanut Butter Falcon, for example. Presented in a series of silent flashbacks—Bernthal doesn’t utter a single line of dialogue, and his total screen time might be less than a minute—his older brother character is overly affectionate. He’s hugging. He’s kissing Tyler on the head. Grabbing him by the nape of the neck—the classic big brother move. And even though our time spent with the two of them is short, their love and closeness leap off the screen.

In The Bear, this warmth and tenderness isn’t touchy-feely. No one is pulling anyone tight for a hug. No, here, it’s in how the other characters watch Michael as he holds court in the kitchen.

As he regales Cousin Richie and Sugar and Carmen with a story about a wild night out on the town, everyone looks at him with a smile. They laugh along. There’s even a tiny, heart-wrenching moment in this scene where, after Michael stops Sugar from using the raisins in the recipe, Sugar says, “But Mom always added raisins.” The use of past-tense here is subtle, but it further nails home the point that the four people in this kitchen only have each other. Which makes it all the more tragic when we learn Michael’s death was a suicide.

To Bernthal’s credit, even though both of these cameos are short, he makes the most out of every second on-screen. Not a single gesture or line reading is wasted, which is why both these appearances, especially in the case of The Bear, end up becoming so fondly remembered.

He’s putting on a masterclass of acting, unveiling everything we need to know about who this person was in only a small amount of time. And when you combine this talent with everything he’s bringing to the screen physically, he makes for one hell of big brother, doesn’t he?

There’s also something beautiful about both Bernthal cameos in that they’re touching on something profound about the human condition: how we go about remembering our loved ones who have passed away.

It’s hardly ever the big things we remember; it’s the little things.

It’s the stories they told us in the kitchen. The way they’d burp in the middle of them.

It’s the meals we cooked together. The nights out drinking and playing pool till the sun came up.

The way they’d grabbed us by the back of the neck, making us feel loved and protected, quietly reassuring us that no matter how much shit life threw our way, everything was going to work out just fine. And we believed them.

It’s the jokes and the ball-busting and the annoying catchphrases they used over and over that we wish we never had to hear again.

Until the day comes when we’d give anything to hear that annoying, stupid saying just one more time. But we can’t.

In the end, all we’re left with are the memories of the little things to keep us going.

So let’s take a page out of Bernthal’s playbook, and just like his acting, let’s make the most out of every second we have. After all, it’s worked out wonderfully for him so far. And no matter what, always remember…

Let it rip.

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