Cillian Murphy isn’t exactly the most well-known actor working today, but that doesn’t make him any less of an exceptional performer. The star of such TV shows and movies as Peaky Blinders, 28 Days Later, and Oppenheimer, Murphy has been a celebrated actor within the film industry for over two decades. He’s specialized in playing angel-eyed villains and tragically flawed heroes, bringing significant depth and emotion to practically every character he’s played.While his filmography is fairly small, Murphy has earned repeated praise for virtually every one of his roles in film and television, regardless of whether he’s the featured star or appearing in a minor or supporting role.
From iconic comic book villains to troubled 20th-century gangsters and brilliant scientists, here is every one of Cillian Murphy’s greatest performances, ranked from best to worst.
It’s interesting to note that, despite their vast number of collaborations in the past, Oppenheimer is the first time Cillian Murphy has been featured in a starring role in a Christopher Nolan film. Portraying the historical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, Murphy is given his meatiest role yet as the father of the atom bomb – a man of immense mental proficiency, yet completely unaware of the larger implications of his work. It’s a dense, thought-provoking performance of startling depth and accuracy, paving the way for Murphy’s best performance to date.
Oppenheimer might contain Murphy’s best performance, but Peaky Blinders assuredly features his most popular character to date. As the fierce, coarse 1910s gangster Tommy Shelby, Murphy embeds a ton of elements into his portrayal of Peaky Blinders’ main character, outfitting him with a grave exterior but subtly hinting at a softer, more vulnerable side to his psyche.
The Dark Knight is most certainly the better movie of the two, but Batman Begins features Murphy in a more prominent role, accounting for its significantly high place on this list. Playing the deranged psychiatrist, Jonathan Crane, Murphy hands in a performance that can only be described as terrifying. Hidden beneath the burlap sack of Crane’s criminal alter ego, Scarecrow's calm demeanor and boyish appearance perfectly mask Crane’s unhinged alternative persona.
28 Days Later
After being featured in several films and theatrical productions in the late 1990s, Murphy received his first starring role in 2002’s 28 Days Later. Playing Jim – a cyclist who’s recently awakened from a coma to find Great Britain ravaged by a zombie apocalypse – Murphy creates a sense of awe and disbelief, believably portraying a man out of his element, completely baffled, terrified, and disgusted by the world around him.
Murphy’s second collaboration with director Danny Boyle after 28 Days Later, Sunshine’s ensemble cast might overshadow the contributions of its performers. However, each actor still excellently stands out in their respective parts. In the case of Murphy, he excels at playing the quiet physicist Robert Capa. Like his bookish performance as the seemingly mundane Jonathan Crane in Batman Begins, Murphy can elicit a more subtle performance as the largely quiet Capa, allowing his actions and facial expressions to tell the bulk of his character’s story.
A Quiet Place Part II
In 2020, Murphy returned to the post-apocalyptic genre 18 years after his breakthrough appearance in 2002’s 28 Days Later. In A Quiet Place Part II, Murphy steps into the role of Emmett, an enigmatic survivor who encounters the Abbott family as they venture into the area surrounding their isolated farmhouse for the first time. His motivations a mystery, the Abbotts (as well as the audience) spend the majority of the movie wondering about Emmett’s intentions and whether there’s enough humanity left in him to still care about others.
The Wind That Shakes the Barley
Gaining global recognition for his prominent roles in Batman Begins, Red Eye, and Breakfast on Pluto, Murphy next appeared in the 2006 historical drama, The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Set against the Irish War of Independence, Murphy appears as the reluctant Irish patriot Damien O’Donovan, a young man thrust into politics after witnessing the constant mistreatment of his people. Adopting an increasingly militaristic stance on Irish independence, Murphy moves from a nonpolitical mindset into ardent patriotism, paving the way for one of Murphy’s most nuanced characters.
As with the latter two Dark Knight films and his smaller role in Inception, Murphy doesn’t figure into Christopher Nolan’s 2017 war film, Dunkirk, all that much. However, his performance is, without a doubt, some of the best work he’s done for the director, delivering a ton of emotion based on facial expressions and body language alone. As a shivering, shell-shocked British soldier, Murphy conveys the terrified expressions of someone traumatized by combat. His fearful face and non-stop shaking illustrate the mental collapse of someone who’s seen horrors beyond human understanding, forcing him to commit heated acts of violence for self-preservation.
Appearing in theaters the same year as Batman Begins, Murphy’s role in the 2005 thriller, Red Eye, is similar to his portrayal of Scarecrow in Christopher Nolan’s film. Whereas Crane may seem like a mundane, withdrawn psychiatrist in one moment, he can transition to a figure of pure malevolence in the next. This chameleon-like trait of Murphy similarly turns up in Wes Craven’s Red Eye. Initially appearing as a jovial, charming stranger, Murphy can effortlessly transform himself into an unhinged psychopath in the blink of an eye.
Breakfast on Pluto
It’s fascinating that three of Murphy’s best performances came in 2005. The same year he was startling audiences as the unhinged supervillain Scarecrow in Batman Begins and as a demonic terrorist in Red Eye. Murphy also played the notably lighter role of Kitten Braden in Neal Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto. While not a great film, Murphy transcends the movie’s otherwise mediocre quality, delighting as the sweet-natured, emotionally uncertain Kitten.
Once again, Murphy figures in a somewhat lesser role in a Nolan film, appearing as the de facto main antagonist of Nolan’s 2010 sci-fi thriller, Inception. Playing the business magnate Robert Fischer, Murphy’s character finds himself the chief target of Dom’s dream heist. Exploiting Fischer’s estranged relationship with his father, Dom, and his team infiltrate the mogul’s subconscious, giving us a rich understanding of his character. Plagued by doubt, insecurity, and frustration with his father, Fischer longs for his father’s love above all else, valuing it perhaps even more than he does his vast fortune and business empire.
The Dark Knight Rises
As with The Dark Knight, Murphy reprises his role as the Scarecrow in the conclusive chapter in Nolan’s superhero trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises. This time more fully inhabiting his persona as Crane rather than Scarecrow, Murphy appears as the disheveled enforcer of law and order in Gotham after Bane’s forces take over the city. Presiding over a kangaroo court and with wisps of hay poking out of suit, Murphy is a joy to see in his supporting role as Batman’s fear-obsessed foe.
Broken has its fair share of issues but still features brilliant performances from its underrated cast (especially Murphy, Tim Roth, and Rory Kinnear). As Mike Kiernan – the teacher of Eloise Laurence’s 11-year-old main character – Murphy brings some genuine heartfelt weightiness to his presence. A realistic image of most people immediately after a breakup, he alternates between disbelief, anguish, and a longing to return to the way things were before.
The Dark Knight
Again, The Dark Knight may be the best of Nolan’s trilogy, but we placed it slightly below the other two entries in the series because it features so little of Murphy. Reprising his role as the Scarecrow, Crane proves an insignificant threat to Batman as he continues his crusade to clean up crime in Gotham. Still, Murphy can deliver a few memorable lines here and there, including several psychiatry-themed quips and puns.
As with Dunkirk, Murphy has a comparatively small role in 2003’s Civil War epic Cold Mountain, appearing as the minor character, Bardolph (a reference to a Shakespeare supporting character in the Henriad series). A starving Union soldier, Bardolph and two of his companions arrive at the homestead of a single mother (Natalie Portman), threatening her infant child in exchange for food.
Leaving the baby out in the freezing weather, Murphy’s Bardolph is the only soldier who appears despondent at the trio’s inhumane treatment of the infant. His screen time may be limited, but Murphy handles his role with gusto, hammering home how horrific war can be for soldiers and non-combatants.