Brad Renfro was an alcoholic and a drug addict, and while his death yesterday at age 25 is almost surely a byproduct of those addictions, how he died shouldn’t be given more weight than this one essential fact: He was an extraordinary actor. The Knoxville, Tennessee native made two dozen movies (no wonder he drank) and though he commanded attention in even the worst of those, he gave indelible performances in at least three films — The Client (1994), Apt Pupil (1998) and Bully (2001) — a track record actors twice his age can’t always claim.
Filmed when Renfro was 11-years-old, The Client is the kind of guilty pleasure junk you watch on TNT on a Saturday afternoon without telling anybody. Novelist John Grisham’s willfully overwrought plot, about a white trash kid with info the Feds are desperate to obtain, is efficiently tracked by director Joel Schumacher, but it’s the sight of young Renfro staring down Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones that gives the movie a lasting kick. Still riding the career highs generated, respectively, by Thelma & Louise and The Fugitive, Sarandon and Jones in the early 1990s had been embraced anew by audiences who admired and feared — in a happily jazzed way — their biting intelligence. But in The Client, the two vets seem a bit stunned — in a pleased, generous way — by Renfro’s ferocity, as if they sense in this little boy from nowhere a fury deeper and wilder than their own. You can see in the eyes of masters and novice alike looks of equality and recognition. I suspect that news of Renfro’s death made Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones curse.
Four years later, after doing deeply-felt work in The Cure (1995) and Telling Lies in America (the one good Joe Eszterhas script) Renfro landed his biggest and best role (his last big-time Hollywood moment) in director Bryan Singer’s disturbing and underrated adaptation of the Stephen King novella, Apt Pupil. Playing a suburban boy named Todd whose inner sociopath finds purpose when he discovers that the old man down the street (Sir Ian McKellan) was a Nazi concentration camp guard, Renfro gives a brilliantly measured performance, one likely to stand the test of time. Todd does terrible things, but as with any respectable psychopath, his heart never seems to race — Renfro stays even and calm and Todd is all the more terrifying for it. If you haven’t seen Apt Pupil, and few have, rent it, and watch for the scene in which Todd humiliates McKellan (no easy task) or the one near the end, when, with an almost sensuous delight, Todd reveals his evil nature to a guidance counselor played by David Schwimmer. You’ll doubtless gain new respect for Schwimmer, who must have looked into Renfro’s ice cold gaze and instantly connected with fear.
And then there’s Bully, director Larry Clarke’s pseudo docu-drama about real-life teenage murderers in South Florida. Critically blasted upon release, the film does indeed play like Bruce Weber filming an Abercrombie & Fitch ad in a trailer park while smoking crack. Profanity-ridden and sex-and-nudity drenched, Bully is arthouse hooey that nevertheless packs a punch, thanks to the work of Clarke’s scarily committed ensemble. How he persuaded rising stars such as Renfro and Nick Stahl and Bijou Phillips to degrade themselves for posterity must be a tale in and off itself. Regardless, it's Renfro who saves the film from complete nihilism. Utterly degraded yet secretly hopeful, Marty wails in agony as he’s called out into the night to commit murder, to cross the last line. In that pain, Renfro finds for Marty a final, fleeting dignity. Brad Renfro, an actor, died yesterday and I want to cry because humans that brave and that full to bursting — with love and madness and feeling — are increasingly, wrenchingly, rare.