Robert Pattinson has given better performances in better films than The Rover, yet it’s a brief scene from David Michod’s outback dystopian thriller that I always think of when it comes to defining his strange, frangible screen persona. Shortly after this otherwise stern, dour sci-fi deals one of film history’s least expected needle drops in the bouncy form of Keri Hilson’s Pretty Girl Rock, we cut to the daft but oddly affecting sight of Pattinson, playing a gauzy-eyed simpleton at the mercy of the wilderness, sitting in a darkened car and singing softly along to the song’s cocky, skittering R&B beat: “All eyes on me when I walk in/No question that this girl’s a ten/Don’t hate me ‘cause I’m beautiful/Don’t hate me ‘cause I’m beautiful.”
In an otherwise strenuously masculine film, this small moment of unabashed camp is delicious, winking as it does at the young, predominantly female fanbase that followed Pattinson from the Twilight films into artier, more eccentric realms. But it also acknowledges his unusual, anti-macho star image: Pattinson is beautiful, in a willowy, alabaster, slightly aloof way that Hollywood doesn’t tend to seek in leading men, though it couldn’t have been more perfect for the goth androgyny of vampire romantic Edward Cullen.
The original millennial softboy before the next generation took up that phrase in earnest, Pattinson’s dreamboat allure was defined by a degree of embedded femininity, a vulnerable beauty – and indeed, pace Hilson, some did hate him for it. In certain male-led quarters of the internet, hating Twilight and its fangirl following was a fixation for several years: the common line on Pattinson became that he was a wan, ineffectual pretty-boy who couldn’t act. The coarsest version of this teasing, of course, was confined to sweaty incel-net forums, yet it trickled into film criticism too – egged on, at the zenith of Cullenmania, by non-Twilight script choices that played unabashedly to his besotted fans. Water for Elephants, Bel Ami and Remember Me were hardly great films, yet critics laid into their lush, feminine romanticism with unseemly glee.
This is an old Hollywood chorus, of course: female-targeted genres, and those who trade in them, routinely come in for more scorn than rugged action exercises or male-led auteur pieces. Sure enough, it was only when Pattinson started playing the latter game that he started getting some respect: in 2012, when he scowled and suited up for David Cronenberg’s terse, chilly adaptation of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, the “R-Pattz can act!” headlines duly followed. This wasn’t a revelation to those who had noticed his subtly self-mocking, script-defying intensity in the Twilight, or even his game matinee-idol flexing in Water for Elephants; the context was just a little more acceptable.
Rather like his Twilight co-star and ex-girlfriend Kristen Stewart – herself the brunt of insistent, tedious “can’t act” criticism as punishment for the franchise – Pattinson thus took the arthouse route to elevating his reputation, picking ever more challenging roles in ever more idiosyncratic auteur projects: from the aforementioned The Rover to James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, from Brady Corbet’s The Childhood of a Leader to the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time. His leading role as a frenzied, worn-to-the-bone lighthouse keeper’s apprentice in Robert Eggers’ marvellous maritime nightmare The Lighthouse is a perfect example. His beauty, still present, is hollowed out and exhausted in harsh monochrome, pockmarked and saddled with scraggly sailor’s moustache: Whether beating up seagulls or raging through ugly exchanges of deep-stewed 19th-century seadog vernacular, it’s a role that, on the face of it, seems all but tailored for someone trying to shed a teen-idol stigma.
Yet look closer at these roles and performances, and Pattinson’s elegant reshaping of his own stardom looks a little less plainly reactive, and more like a subversion: the softness is still there, just in harder surroundings. In the caffeinated, tarmac-pounding New York heist thriller Good Time, he’s cast seemingly against type as a crude, scuzzy, coked-up fuckup, though as his character’s rickety criminal plans fall apart from the get-go, his gaping, unloved vulnerability is as glaring as his peroxided hair. In Claire Denis’ ingenious sensual space odyssey High Life, he’s an introverted, celibate criminal turned tenderly doting father, though only through being summarily raped by Juliette Binoche’s controlling astrophysicist; joining victimhood and paternal protectiveness in one fraught swoop, it’s a character arc unlike that of any male protagonist in the movies.
Even in The Lighthouse, Pattinson’s gnarled, calloused performance is principally characterised by helpless, flailing defeat. He’s cultivated a rich, riveting line in outwardly hardened men a little too beautiful, a little too fragile, for the harsher worlds in which they find themselves – upending expectations of what a leading man can do, or more pointedly can’t do, on screen. And now the multiplex comes calling again: seven years after the Twilight saga concluded and liberated its young stars from studio franchise handcuffs, he’s signed up for the umpteenth reboot of The Batman, with a leading role in Christopher Nolan’s latest action whirligig Tenet to come before then.
Pattinson’s arthouse dabblings have potentially prepared him well to play Bruce Wayne, the superhero with a more human, angsty backstory than the rest of them, even if many of those to play him over years – Christian Bale’s clenched, ungiving Dark Knight included – have been loath to dwell on his weaknesses. Could Pattinson be the softboy Batman we haven’t yet seen, or a flawed manchild to match Joaquin Phoenix’s revised Joker? Fanboys certainly fear so: it felt like the clock have been turned back to the early 2010s when the casting news was announced, and basement-dwelling geeks seized on Twitter to protest that the erstwhile Edward Cullen (still) “can’t act,” and that he isn’t macho or invulnerable enough to play their beloved caped crusader. On the latter charge, Pattinson has amply cleared himself; on the former, the trolls might be more right than they know.