A Unifying Theory of Matt Dillon, the Quintessential Homme Fatale

What if we told you that Matt Dillon’s beauty is more than just a pretty face, and that his sexiness works to allow him to be the quintessential homme fatale? Staff writer Alisha Mughal explains.


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There is a scene halfway through James Dearden’s melodramatically deadly thriller A Kiss Before Dying (1991) wherein Matt Dillon’s character Jonathan Corliss is leaving the Hobart Hotel in New York City with a suitcase. From the point of view of every person, staff member, and civilian passing through the hotel, Dillon’s Jonathan cuts a fairly normal figure — checking out of a hotel, as millions have done before and will do after. If he does catch your eye, it’s because of his expensive-looking dark suit, his shiny hair set perfectly, his porcelain skin and flushed cheeks, his pink lips like a rose petal creased in half, and his dark Irish eyebrows. If he does catch your eye… it’s because he’s jaw-droppingly beautiful.

But look a bit closer and you’ll see the madness. Jonathan’s feet strain and slip on the hotel’s lacquered floors, pulled by the heft of the noticeably bulging suitcase; his rose-petal lips are parted slightly as he works to steady and conceal the huff of his breathing. His tie is a bit loose (but not too loose), tied swiftly by a carefully-cultivated habit to look presentable. His face struggles to contain the strain his body is under: his eyebrows want to knit over his narrowed eyes, but are stopped by his trademark James Dean-esque squint. Jonathan’s affected control is the kind only a madman can muster. Jonathan has the kind of surface beauty that no one suspects, so they look away from him before they can notice the fact that the suitcase he’s dragging contains the chopped up body of a woman.

It’s roles with this interplay of pristine and handsome outer layer, masking a nutty madness that slowly seeps through the seams of the facade, that Matt Dillon has been playing for most of his career. It’s this complicated nature that interviewers and journalists alike have had difficulty identifying, let alone summarizing. In fact, writers follow the same trajectory of interpretation as the people passing through the Hobart Hotel who admire briefly and then overlook Jonathan, as though beauty elides any malice or depth of thought. Writers get caught up initially in Dillon’s beauty so they neglect to look deeper. Dillon hints time and again through his performances and through his own words what exactly his process in selecting roles is, but many critics neglect this in favor of disparate surface readings, because the surface is so beguiling.

Legendary film critic Roger Ebert opens his 1983 interview with Matt Dillon by remarking on the actor’s appearance. “Matt Dillon is impossibly handsome, a fact that has been noticed by several million teenage girls,” reads the piece’s first line. Ebert himself seems a bit starry-eyed during the interview: “Did you know, I said, that Dennis Hopper – who played James Dean’s buddy in Rebel — is here at this festival?” Ebert asks Dillon. “Well, yeah,” Dillon responds. “He plays my father in Rumble Fish. He’s quite a guy. He went through all that rebellion, you know.” “Well, yeah,” Ebert says, as if falling back to earth. “Ah, what can you tell me about the real S. E. Hinton?” he rebounds.

Dillon’s looks seem to have this flustering kind of effect on interviewers across the board, regardless of when the interview is conducted. Andy Warhol and Maura Moynihan write of Dillon in a 1983 Interview Magazine piece of Dillon’s “tangible appeal,” which despite the actor’s self-awareness and technical acumen, pierces unignorable: “On his taut physique clothing falls in loose disorder. Buttons seem to come undone and fabric slackens. He is blessed with dramatic Gaelic coloring: glossy black hair, luminous skin with flushed cheeks and enormous liquid eyes.”

A 2008 Black Book Magazine piece waxes lasciviously poetic about Dillon’s beauty, past and present. Beginning by noting how Dillon looks good matured, the writer goes on to recall the shade of his younger beauty under which Dillon still lives, clearly: “Girls just can’t seem to forget that skinny white cobra spine curving up from his hips, that torso that always looked a little too long for his pants. […] Parenthetical arches crease his forehead. His eyebrows, thick bars as straight as black Band-Aids, form an inverted V over quizzical round eyes, still and reflective as cold coffee. A cigarette dangles out of his wide Kool-Aid lips. White shoulders shrug the straps of a wife-beater.”

These pieces open with rambling and lyrical descriptions of Dillon’s beauty and then go on to attempt a terse characterization: some say he often plays the rebel, others describe his characters as very “American,” others yet say that he’s playing exaggerated versions of himself. The amorphous and varied manner in which writers and journalists talk about Dillon’s career, especially in face of the fact that Dillon has been stating since 1983 how he selects his roles, how he likes conventionally unattractive characters, actively seeks them out (he’s self aware and incredibly smart) — they seem to be hitting the mark even if they don’t know it. Critics talk about a physical perfection in Dillon that is undergirded by a shock of intellect and self awareness that sears, but they fail to see that a perfect facade hiding something caustic, this dialectic, is paralleled in many of the characters Dillon has played, and what Dillon seems to be working toward with each performance. By going toward the conventionally unattractive (in moral terms) role, Dillon necessarily adds attractiveness to it, and this adds the sort of compelling friction and nuance that Dillon wants to portray. Take Jonathan Corliss: the normal-seeming, genteel-looking Jonathan distracts so much so that the dead body in the suitcase would be unbelievable at first if found with him — we’re taught culturally to believe that beauty signifies moral goodness, after all. It’s this collision of physical perfection with internal darkness — the kind that causes destruction, distress, and danger to other characters and to audiences — that creates Dillon’s type, that has underscored every one of his roles, from the beginning of his career to now.

Matt Dillon is the quintessential homme fatale.

Profilers and characters alike buy the homme fatale’s tales

It may be difficult for viewers and critics to fully see Dillon’s homme fatale-ness, but he has been embodying that role over the years as he portrays glowing characters with seedy underbellies.

Something profiles and interviews have in common — aside from their fascination with Dillon’s physical beauty — is their inability to succinctly define the kinds of roles Dillon took on, in his early career in the ‘80s, the ‘90s, and into the aughts; it’s their inability to typify him. That his characters have a humanity under their tough boy exterior vaguely says something while saying not much. Ebert, in a review of A Kiss Before Dying notes Dillon’s skill, hailing him as one of his generation’s greatest actors, but sagely says that the actor will need to play against type to be taken seriously — it will be impossible for the handsome actor to disappear into his roles (not banking on the fact that Dillon could and has capitalized on just this beauty to work to upturn our expectations of it and him). Ebert still describes Dillon as a matinee idol, a teen idol. The Black Book piece, with the privilege of hindsight, charts Dillon’s career trajectory: he was a “tarnished crown prince” (darker than Fonzie, lighter than James Dean, though this latter bit is debatable in face of the hopeless grittiness of Drugstore Cowboy and The Saint of Fort Washington), playing rugged characters with a feral instinct guiding them, for whom intellect is negligible. (Many writers have called Dillon the dumb Adonis.) A 1993 New York Times article by Jan Hoffman attempts a unifying theory: “With a few exceptions, surly, street-smart guys are the sort of roles that find him, in films like Drugstore CowboyOver the EdgeMy BodyguardThe Outsiders and A Kiss Before Dying. For years the press has suggested that Mr. Dillon has been merely playing extreme versions of himself, and interviewers repeatedly have found him tardy, coy, arrogant, withholding.”

The established modus operandi in most pieces on Dillon seems to be a description of his flooring beauty, and a scrambling attempt to draw a line through his career (the throwing up of various tropes), in an effort to to understand Dillon’s selection process, claiming ultimately in an uninspired and defeated way that he’s playing versions of himself or the everyday unlucky man — this certainly is a pat way to ascribe method to a spinning madness that we can’t seem to understand.

Yet while it’s understandable that all these writers are on the same page when it comes to describing a singular physicality, how can they provide such various readings of a singular career?


The unifying theory

Moynihan asks Dillon in 1983 why he’s so good at playing tough and angry characters. “Those are the kinds of roles you can really sink your teeth into,” Dillon replies. “Characters with an edge. When you’re playing someone who’s sort of seedy, there’s less limitation, there’s so much space you can travel. There’s room to move in.”

In another interview from 2018, Dillon describes doing work with a character to find his rationale for doing whatever it is he’s doing in a plot. When selecting roles, Dillon considers the character’s motivations, he says, not necessarily whether the character falls on the right side of morality or even history. “I think Renoir said something like, ‘The terrible truth is that everyone has their reasons.’ And that’s good to remember when you’re trying to figure out your character. There is a logic behind everything, a human logic, character logic.” The reason why he was attracted to the role of Jack in Lars von Trier’s The House that Jack Built — a sometimes difficult-to-watch film about a serial killer describing his most notorious murders from the afterlife — was not because he would get to play a bad character, but because the character of the serial killer was fleshed out. Dillon says. “I remember reading something, a pilot or something, and the protagonist who you’re supposed to be relating to is double crossing people for no reason,” Dillon says. “And I’m thinking, ‘Where’s the logic?’” Jack did terrible things, but Jack’s  motivations made sense within the story that contained him.


This is to say, Dillon plays unattractive characters, humanizing them as much as he can by fleshing them out, travelling through a life he’s imagined for them out. The interesting bit is, what turns these dark and monteresque characters into hommes fatale almost immediately is not so much Dillon’s rationalizing work, but that Dillon is playing them at all — he makes any dark character a beautiful one, too.

We know the archetype of the femme fatale — she is stunning, seduces with an icy or plasmic look, and can have a heart that is good or one festering with guilt and desire and lust. Bringing distress or disaster to whoever becomes entangled in the web of her passion, her love, or on the path of her goal, the femme fatale is sometimes nefarious, haunted by a seedy past or living through a present that’s under the sway of various others’ wills. Barbara Stanwyck played the femme fatale as man-eating vamp with Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity, manipulating and endangering men, while Rita Hayworth played the mysterious femme fatale from the other (good) end of the spectrum in Gilda: ostensibly unhinged, but really tortured and world-weary. Regardless of where the femme fatale lies on the plane of morality, two things are certain: any man who falls for her is doomed, and the femme fatale has a madness underscoring and motivating her every act. The femme fatale is always beautiful and is always a madwoman. The madness can be a depression that throws caution to the wind, one that believes that God is dead and so everything is permitted, like Hayworth’s Gilda’s; or she can be mischievous in her madness, selfish like a man in a man’s world and thereby deliciously insane like Stanwyck’s Phyllis.

The homme fatale appears far less often in mainstream film, but he is there, front and centre in A Kiss Before Dying. The film begins with the murder of pregnant Dorrie Carlsson (Sean Young), the heiress of copper refinery empire Carlsson Copper, at the hands of Jonathan, who makes it look as though Dorrie committed suicide. Jonathan has his sights set on the Carlsson fortune. Dorrie’s pregnancy means that her father Thor (Max von Sydow) will disown her, she won’t get an inheritance. After murdering Dorrie, Jonathan moves onto her twin sister Ellen (also Young), who’s convinced that Dorrie couldn’t have committed suicide (the police are adamant that she did), and so begins investigating on her own the circumstances surrounding Dorrie’s death, all as she has a lot of sex with Dorrie’s killer, all as Jonathan works to protect his future fortune, to foil Ellen’s digging and prying.


Jonathan is an homme fatale whose industrious madness boils and roils beneath his cool, Ivy-league exterior. He wears the coziest knits, the kind JFK Jr. would envy, talks with Thor about fishing and business with the effete air of someone who should have been old money rich, but had the misfortune of being born to a working class family. But as Ellen gets closer and closer to Jonathan’s secrets, his madness starts to bubble up, gurgling through the cracks of his artificed poor kid with a heart of gold facade. One minute he is talking in cooing tones with Ellen as she is plagued by the mystery of her sister’s death, the next he begins yelling at her about his frustration with her, how annoying it is that she’s refusing to let the past rest. In moments like these the audience alongside Ellen start, even though we have the privileged position of knowing Jonathan’s secret from the start —because we forget and are taken in by Dillon’s beautiful spell.

Dillon is indeed breathtaking in this movie, playing Jonathan’s madness with dazzling conviction. It’s because of his beauty we worry as as we watch Jonathan’s lips curl in a smile as he burns Dorrie’s shoes, as he kills Patricia (Martha Gehman), a university acquaintance of Dorrie’s, dismembers her, and stuffs her into the suitcase at the Hobart Hotel — we worry because we don’t want this beauty to get caught. It’s Dillon’s physical beauty that takes us under his sway, makes us want to excuse his crimes, his leeching selfishness, madness borne of inherent badness, his spite commingled with the strain of his material, working class conditions. Dillon’s Jonathan makes us want to give everything up for his sweet embrace.

Dillon excels in portraying this kind of madness that is the hallmark of femmes and hommes fatale. In everything from The Outsiders, in which he impeccably portrays the doomed and slowly unravelling Dally whose temper brings on death and destruction, to Drugstore Cowboy, to City of Ghosts (which he co-wrote and directed, about a corrupt insurance salesman on the lamb), to The House that Jack Built, he plays these tortured and wayward characters negotiating their way through the world, confessing their sins to anyone who will listen, but not being believed because of his appearance.

Each character has their unique brand of madness, sometimes falling in at the deep end, sometimes trying their mightiest to emerge from the abyss of ignoble selfishness and irrationality. The homme fatale’s madness is a kind of insanity that can be mental illness (psychopathy) but can also be the kind of madness that is more literary than pathological: a lostness, a striving for moral ground in a savagely indifferent world. The kind of madness that Dillon so often portrays is quiet, gambles on the odds of characters within the film and on audiences giving him the benefit of the doubt — maybe he’ll resume his status-quo-ness, his normalcy, we hope. It’s not a madness that you can see from miles away: not loud like Jack Nicholson’s Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or even the kind that simmers until it finally, gallingly explodes like Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. Rather, it’s an almost feminine madness, the kind that reveals itself in little bursts until its ultimate implosion, like Blanche DuBois’s.

Dally was always head over heels for Johnny, always quick to the trigger; Jonathan Corliss was mad from the start, as was Jack the serial killer; Jimmy in City of Ghosts had a conscience that scratched at his moral injunctions/his selfish madness from the film’s first few frames. The madnesses that Dillon portrays are always before us, in the way his beauty is, in the way that Patricia’s body in the suitcase is. We just need to look closer.

Many of Dillon’s characters are impossibly cool, sure, but they’re also something more. They’re either made insane by the demands of the unique pressure of their place in society, or their insanity is exacerbated by the pressure. Dillon’s characters’ insanity has them do bad things that, depending on the character’s moral register, they loathe or relish. He excels at playing these “American” or “working class” characters cracking, squinting under the pressure to be rich, to make it, and doing what is morally repugnant (to audiences) to achieve their own version of the American Dream, to achieve a material standing that complements their physical beauty. Is this not the M.O. of the femme fatale? Do what you can to get by, even if it initially disgusts you, because eventually you might come to like it, as Jonathan Corliss does.

Certainly, not all his roles have fallen into the type of homme fatale, but many of them do, enough to form a pattern, enough to typify Dillon, especially the ones that have garnered him his greatest acclaim. It’s a kind of pattern that once you see it, you can’t unsee it, even in the most unconventional places. Consider the character of Henry Chinaski in Factotum, based on Charles Bukowski’s works, which depicts Henry as a wanderer working various odd jobs so he can support his writing career. Factotum isn’t a noir, but Henry is a kind of homme fatale in the sense that his precarious living situation is dangerous, he is endlessly seductive as evidenced by his ability to easily get women, and he seems mad for choosing to live precariously at all, for being okay with abject poverty, for being okay with not having any money at all. His comedic turns contain a glimmer of madness that beguiles not only the characters he interacts with, but also us as audiences.

The idea of Dillon as an homme fatale is especially effective because of the male gaze that most mainstream films work through. In typical heteronormative mainstream noirs, femmes fatale primarily seduce male leads. But hommes fatale, because of the secondary and weaker position women hold in most hetero mainstream narratives, work to seduce other men in their own cinematic universe, but also and importantly audiences. We, the audience, take the role of those being distressed and endangered by the homme fatale, by his destructive and dangerous actions. Consider The House that Jack Built and the various stories of people walking out of its screenings. Dillon as an homme fatale certainly distresses and destroys us, has us question our moral grounding, because he is so effective at first seducing us with his looks. We are beguiled by his dark eyebrows against an at-times serene, an at-times creased with worry porcelain forehead, and large brown eyes like warm coffee. In City of Ghosts, we follow Jimmy to Cambodia, knowing from the film’s start that this is a nefarious character who’s caused people hurt, nonetheless we’re breathless as we watch him embark on a moral journey similar to Hayworth’s Gilda’s, as he searches not so much for truth but for goodness in a world where it comes in short supply, even in himself.

Ultimately, the dialectic of most Matt Dillon pictures, and our interactions with him as an actor, is this: we are captivated and caught off guard, even seduced, by his physical beauty, and therefore unsuspecting when the madness shines through as little glimmers of erraticness or dangerousness. As soon as that madness does shine through, and we’re still staring at his pale skin and dark hair and beautiful lips, we’re doomed. The destruction can come in various forms of moral unease and panic, or real destruction like murder and death, but sometimes the characters he plays destroy their beautiful and tender selves through their own madness. Since the ‘80s Matt Dillon has been playing the quintessential homme fatale, the perfectly quiet madman, we were just too preoccupied with his handsomeness to notice.

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