*Major spoilers for The Punisher ahead.*
It’s the bloodcurdling shriek that does it. When Frank Castle shoves Billy Russo’s face against the cracked mirror and drags it across, shredding his skin to pieces, it isn’t the image that makes this scene the goriest in the MCU yet. It’s the scream. The scream that’s so pained, so impossibly real that we flinch in horror, worried that real damage was actually done. Thankfully, Ben Barnes’ face is still in perfect condition. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about (for the most part). I’m here to talk about the pure brilliance of Barnes’ performance, and how he hit that perfect balance of charisma and repulsion that is Billy Russo.
Barnes has found himself in many different genres over the years, and chances are this isn’t the first time you’re coming across him. You may recognize him from the Narnia films as Prince Caspian, but you might also recognize him from his latest role on HBO’s Westworld, where he played the more-than-slightly antagonistic Logan. Now, Barnes may have played two baddies back-to-back, but these characters are very different. Logan wanted power, sure, but he liked being bad for the fun of it. He relished chaos. Billy Russo is infinitely more complicated, and honestly, it’s quite infuriating (in a good way). All you want to do is hate him, and you do, but there’s a part of you that almost wants to root for him. He’s bad, but he isn’t all bad. And Barnes plays this like nobody’s business.
Until the end of the sixth episode, ‘The Judas Goat’, we don’t have any concrete proof that Billy Russo is bad news. Something seems off, but we can’t really show our work. It’s more of a feeling, subtle hints here and there. Take Episode 4. There’s this moment when Billy, as a favor to Curtis, asks Lewis to leave Anvil. Lewis sort of puffs out his chest and stares Billy down. And this is when a sudden change comes over Billy. It’s slight, he barely moves an inch, but the entire atmosphere has palpably altered. There’s this darkness on Russo’s face, and this isn’t the first time I’ve seen Barnes do this. He has a real talent for it. These incredibly subtle movements that change all of his features and add a true sense of danger to the scene. It’s fantastic to watch, and it builds so much suspense. It’s like watching the calm before a storm. You’re just not sure when the storm’s going to hit.
There’s a detail in the show that really deserves to be applauded, and this praise goes both to Barnes and the writers. And that’s to the nods throughout the series to American Psycho. In the opening scene of Episode 8, we see Billy getting ready for his day and it’s very similar to Patrick Bateman’s morning routine. It’s all about perfecting that mask. No matter where he’s going, no matter what he’s doing, Billy is always put together. That facade, that charm, is always there. And really all we see, until the end, is that mask. No cracks, no blemishes (literal or otherwise). And when he looks in the mirror at the end, when he sees his mauled face, or what’s left of it, he’s hit with this understanding that there isn’t a mask anymore. There’s nowhere to hide. It’s so satisfying to watch, but it’s also sort of sad in a way. Barnes hits these notes so beautifully. He makes you hate Russo with a burning passion, but he gets you to sympathize with him simultaneously. It isn’t easy, and is a true testament to his talent.
This isn’t the first time Ben Barnes has made you root for a character that you didn’t want to root for. Because up until that final episode, that’s really what Russo is. He’s a guy who’s done really bad things, but under a different upbringing could have made very different choices. He could’ve been someone who cared about Frank enough to save his family. He could’ve cared about Dinah enough to have a genuine relationship with her. It makes us question ourselves, who we would be given those situations, and it makes us judge Billy a little less harshly.
While Barnes has brought a lot of charisma to Russo, he’s brought just as much to loathe. There are so many scenes that are so twisted you can’t help but cringe. When Billy bathes Dinah after he’s killed Sam, washing the blood away. It’s a moment that should be so sweet, so intimate, and is instead so harrowing. When we see him with Frank’s kids, when they call him Uncle Billy, even though he knew full well that they were going to die soon enough. This character is so dark, and Barnes has definitely shown us that side. And now that Russo doesn’t have his looks, the one thing in life that he’s always been able to count on, it’s going to be fascinating to see what happens to him. He’s no longer someone we want to love, but someone we love to hate. Wherever Billy Russo’s path leads next (cough cough, Jigsaw, cough cough), I can’t wait to see what Barnes does with it. If this season was any indication, it’s going to be brilliant to behold.
PS. Ben Barnes is actually British. Special applause for that beautifully executed accent!👏👏👏👏
The Punisher Is Currently Streaming On Netflix.