There comes a moment in the recent critical and box-office success Mission: Impossible – Fallout when spy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is seemingly accused by his superior of being an international terrorist. He glances around the room, nervously, wondering which of his team framed him. Though the accusation and Hunt’s actions are revealed to be a clever ruse (as so many scenes in the Mission: Impossible franchise are), Cruise sells the moment brilliantly.
Even though most of his recent roles have been leading men of action movies, it still holds that Tom Cruise is one of the very best paranoid actors. With small gestures and shifts in expression, Cruise shows his characters’ intense distrust and alertness, and in turn, fills us with tension – anxiously awaiting what will happen next. Perhaps more impressively, Cruise shifts his portrayal of paranoia with different roles; whereas one character could easily show his intense fear, another could be more subdued and controlled in his anxiety.
For this article, I chose three Tom Cruise films by three different directors: Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible, and Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Each film operates within different genres, and each character that Cruise plays reckons with a growing sense of paranoia – sometimes delusional, sometimes not.
Minority Report – a blend of science-fiction and action – imagines Washington, D.C. in the year 2054, bringing futuristic surveillance and media technology together with a rugged, gritty style reminiscent of American film noir from the 1940s. Cruise plays Captain John Anderton of PreCrime, a police division that uses three mutated humans – nicknamed “Precogs” – to retrieve visions of future murders and then stop them from happening. A new prediction of Anderton himself committing a premeditated murder forces him to go on the run, figure out who he’s supposed to kill, and why.
Though the film’s central idea revolves around the ‘free will vs. determinism’ debate (do we make our own future, or is it set in stone?), Minority Report also toys with the ever-growing fear of electronic surveillance and monitoring. When Anderton enters the subway shortly after running away, personalized ads call out his name in a cacophony of voices, and he reluctantly gets his eyes scanned before boarding the train. Cruise’s face is passive for most of this sequence, though we see his anxiety in his fast-paced walking – in his stiff posture and rigid arms, in the way his eyes move back and forth every time a different advertisement calls out his name. On the train, he puts his head down for a moment and then sits up, more stoic than ever. As the head of PreCrime, Anderton knows better than anyone how suddenly police officers can appear and the consequences of being arrested; Cruise performs accordingly, appearing calm and unemotional on the surface, but brimming with tension underneath like a coiled spring.
Brian De Palma’s films commonly feature characters caught in obsession and paranoia, and IMF agent Ethan Hunt is no exception. Mission: Impossible was an early gateway towards Cruise becoming the action star he is today, but the film still contains one of his best paranoid performances. After a covert mission ends with every member of his team dead, Hunt learns that the operation was a mole hunt and, as the sole surviving agent, is the prime suspect. Back at the now-abandoned safe house, he dreams of the newly-deceased team leader Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) walking into the room, with blood dripping from a gunshot wound. Hunt wakes up from the nightmare, only to discover another team member, Claire (Emmanuelle Béart), is in the room.
Whereas the character of John Anderton required Cruise to be more subdued in conveying his paranoia, this particular scene as Hunt allows him to openly show his intense anxiety and fear. During the dream of Phelps, Hunt stays motionless; only his eyes and his expression show us all the terror and guilt he feels at letting his superior die. However, when he is abruptly brought back to reality by Claire, Hunt leaps out of his seat and rapidly pulls out his gun. As Claire tries to explain how she survived, his whole body twitches as if he’s just been electrically shocked. Hunt acts cool and relaxed for most of the film, but in this brief moment his guard is down; through Cruise’s intense delivery, we discover how isolated and terrified he really is.
In Minority Report and Mission: Impossible, both Anderton and Hunt’s feelings of paranoia are shown to be founded in reality. Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, on the other hand, questions whether what we’re seeing is real or merely the delusions of Cruise’s character. Dr. Bill Harford (Cruise) and his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) live in Upper Manhattan in a seemingly happy marriage. After Alice reveals that she had a sexual fantasy involving a naval officer she met the previous year, an angry and lost Harford wanders through New York City at nighttime. The turning point of Eyes Wide Shut occurs at the midpoint when Harford infiltrates a masked secret society’s orgy and is quickly caught and expelled. His paranoia only grows when he suspects that the secret society has murdered a young woman, and has people following him.
Right away, Harford presents himself as fully in control: during a Christmas party at the start of the film, Cruise wears a cocky grin, speaks loudly, and walks with brimming confidence. It’s only when Harford learns of Alice’s secret fantasy that his facade begins to fall apart. Several scenes show him sitting in a car, seething with bitter rage as he imagines his wife making love to another man. Even without showing the images running through Harford’s mind, we can tell from Cruise’s hardened, tense expression and his unfocused eyes that he is out of reality. Indeed, with each ensuing scene, Harford only appears further disconnected from the world around him; Cruise seems tinier and his eyes appear sunken into his face. When Harford returns home at last, he sees the mask he left behind with the secret society sitting on the pillow next to his sleeping wife. Whatever resolve he has left drains from his body: tears fall down his quivering face, he collapses on the bed, and he says to Alice between sobs, “I’ll tell you everything.” Whether the mask was really there remains ambiguous, as does much of Eyes Wide Shut. Cruise’s delivery alone tells us Harford has been broken by his paranoid behavior – a shocking contrast to the tough John Anderton and intense Ethan Hunt.
There are, of course, more films where Tom Cruise portrays characters entrenched in feelings of paranoia: the rest of the Mission: Impossible franchise alone is a great example. It may seem silly to narrow down a 35-year acting career to just these films, all released within six years of each other. However, Minority Report, Mission: Impossible, and Eyes Wide Shut all work in contrast: one is hard-boiled science-fiction, another a spy action extravaganza, the third an erotic psychological drama. His characters in all three films act on basic feelings of distrust and paranoia, yet each role remains distinct. The best actors make us feel intense emotions, and there’s hardly anyone like Tom Cruise who can keep us on the edge of our seats, overflowing with tension at what comes next.