When news broke last month that Hilary Swank's latest film, a horror movie entitled 'The Resident,' would go straight to DVD in the States many of us wondered what this meant for the revival of Hammer Films. The venerable British horror studio was a driving force in fright flicks in the '60s and '70s thanks to a barrage of classic films featuring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Things haven't gone quite as swimmingly for the revamped Hammer – their first film, 'Let Me In' (a remake of foreign hit 'Let the Right One In'), earned critical praise but sank at the box office. Now, 'The Resident' – a film with a 20 million dollar budget and a cast that includes Oscar winner Swank, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Christopher Lee - can't even land theatrical distribution. Those are two gigantic blows to a small company.
That's bad enough, but what's even more troubling is what this says about the current state of Hilary Swank's career. Swank's place in the pantheon of great actresses seems assured (two Best Actress Oscars will do that...), but since she took home Academy gold for her 2004 performance in 'Million Dollar Baby,' it's been a long, slow descent into cinematic mediocrity. In some ways, she almost feels like the female version of Nic Cage – only with a lot less scene chewing. A series of puzzling film choices mixed with blatant attempts to woo Oscar voters have left many wondering what's going on in the Swank camp.
We don't have the definitive answer, but hit the jump to take a look at the trailer for 'The Resident,' Swank's recent work and our attempt at figuring out how to get this classy actress back on track.
After picking up her Oscar in 2005, Swank looked unstoppable – it was her second award in five years (the first coming for 'Boys Don't Cry') and she was starting to give off that Tom Hanks vibe. Granted, she was never as easy to relate to as Hanks – an actor who has carefully cultivated an everyman persona that would have made Jimmy Stewart proud – but her ability to turn in engaging and pitch-perfect dramatic performances seemed a given. Swank was an actress mentioned every time the topic of best female film stars was mentioned.
She didn't appear onscreen again until 2006 – when she played a major part in Brian De Palma's adaptation of 'The Black Dahlia.' Based on James Ellroy's mesmerizing novel about the most infamous unsolved murder in Los Angeles history (at least until O.J. came along), it seemed like Swank had once again chosen well. Unfortunately, the finished film is a mess – overwrought, melodramatic and often unintentionally hilarious. (Hilary Swank is not the weakest link in the film's cast.) Still, 'The Black Dahlia' was a failure at the box office – bringing in a measly $22 million domestically with a budget of $50 million -- and Swank, the most lauded performer in the ensemble, couldn't save the project.
The actress looked to rebound from the disappointment of 'The Black Dahlia' with a turn in 'Freedom Writers.' This wannabe 'Dangerous Minds' finds her playing a teacher who inspires a group of disadvantaged (read: ethnic) students to learn to express themselves and be better people. No one expected an Oscar nod for this safe performance, but 'Freedom Writers' did actually turn a profit and earn positive reviews. Maybe things were picking up for Hilary.
Or maybe they weren't. 2007 also saw the release of Swank's 'The Reaping,' a turgid Biblical horror thriller that left many fans scratching their heads. In Swank's defense, 'The Reaping' had been made several years earlier and then languished on a shelf at Warner Bros. as execs tried to figure out how best to drop this cinematic stink bomb on unsuspecting audiences. 'The Reaping' earned $25 million domestically – almost all of it based on Swank and Stephen Rea's names being attached to the film. However, the title was massacred by critics – earning a lowly 8% at aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes. In some ways, it feels like 'The Reaping' was eerily prophetic of Swank's current horror film situation. One film sat on a shelf for years, the other isn't even getting the dignity of a theatrical release. If Swank does a third horror flick, maybe it'll be a Lifetime Movie of the Week (something she's also done – see 1996's 'Terror in the Family,' which was a Hallmark production that turns up on the cable network regularly.)
2007 remained busy for Swank. Her third film that year, the romantic tearjerker 'P.S. I Love You,' was once again slammed by critics (23% at RT) but did turn a profit. Yes, the films are making money – but these poor reviews are definitely starting to take the shine off Swank's Hollywood Queen crown just a bit.
It's not really fair to judge Swank based on her appearance in 2008's 'Birds of America,' mostly because no one saw it and because she appears to have had more of a supporting role – taking a backseat to Matthew Perry, of all people. The less said about this one, the better.
After a string of critical beat downs, Swank returned to her quest to do important and serious films with 2009's 'Amelia.' One generally sure bet to get the attention of Academy voters is to star in a biopic about some fascinating historical character, and who better than famed aviator Amelia Earhart? A film about a feminist pioneer who vanished while attempting to fly around the world sounded like a given for Oscar buzz. It wasn't meant to be, though. 'Amelia' crashed harder at the box office than the title character did during her final flight (too soon?) and critics were unimpressed with the long and drawn out narrative that reduced Earhart's achievements to a list of bullet points to be marked off as each was pinged on the screen. It's at this exact moment that many film folks started to wonder what was up with Ms. Swank's career. It's one thing to appear in some bad films just to keep working and pay the bills – but 'Amelia' sounded like a slam dunk for the actress. To see it miss the mark so badly was definitely a cause for concern.
Undeterred, Hilary took another swing for fences with last year's 'Conviction.' In it, she plays a working mom who puts herself through law school in order to defend her wrongly convicted brother. Despite critical praise (the film is currently earning a 67% Fresh rating at RT), film fans haven't turned out in droves to see this one – which is a shame, since it is a decent movie. Despite the praise and some awards chatter, 'Conviction' has earned less than $7 million since its release in October – leaving many to wonder if Swank's string of less than stellar films has marred her otherwise remarkable career.
Looking at the exhibits listed above, it certainly seems as though Ms. Swank is going through an extended career funk that could change how audiences – and studio executives – view her work. It would be easy to call bad films like 'The Reaping' little more than aberrations – and proof that Swank works better in meaty, serious roles than mainstream fluff. That being said, seeing her strike out so mightily in 'Amelia,' a film that should have been right in her dramatic role wheelhouse, is definitely cause for concern. Even more concerning is the actress' next role, an appearance in what will almost assuredly be a disappointing sequel to rom-com 'Valentine's Day' entitled 'New Year's Eve.' Yikes.
Before we write Ms. Swank off completely and consign her to the scrapheap of great actors who once were, let's all keep in mind that her career went through a similar funk in the wake of 'Boys Don't Cry.' Aside from a supporting role in Sam Raimi's 'The Gift,' and a part in Christopher Nolan's remake of 'Insomnia,' most of her movies were largely forgettable until 'Million Dollar Baby.'
So, now that the evidence is on the table, what can Hilary Swank do to right the ship? Maybe the more important question is what shouldn't she do instead?
Step one: Stay away from horror movies. We have nothing against horror flicks (several of us here at Cinematical love them, in fact), but Hilary Swank is not an actress who gets horror fans excited. When an actress with Swank's stature turns up in a horror film, every horror fan immediately cringes because it can only mean one thing: a high concept studio horror film with no guts that wants to pretend it's more of a thriller than a fright flick. Horror fans avoid that stuff like the plague. Ixnay the horror films from here on out.
Step two: Lay off on the romantic comedies. An occasional foray into the genre is fine, but making several of them in the span of a few years is no good. You're Hilary Swank, not Meg Ryan! Look, everyone's got bills to pay and a romantic comedy is a quick and easy payday that allows Hilary to take less money for more important roles, but life is all about balance. Finish 'New Year's Eve,' then give it a rest.
Step three: Stop pandering to the Academy. After two Oscars, we all know Hilary is talented. If you're a filmmaker with a role that calls for a female lead who can convey single-minded determination in a terrible situation, Swank is on the top of your list. It's time to show us more, though. 'Amelia' was so obvious that the press releases might as well have been titled "Hilary Swank Takes a Role Solely Because it Should Win Her a Third Oscar.' No one, not even the stodgy old voters at the Academy, can get behind something so obvious. Avoid the Oscar bait material and wow us with something out of left field – as long as left field isn't a horror movie or a romantic comedy. 'Conviction' is good, but it's too obvious. Think outside the box.
Step four: If all else fails, fire your agent.
That's our take. What do you guys think? Is Hilary's slump being overplayed? Can she turn this thing around and reclaim her former glory? Play agent and offer her your career advice in the comment section.