In a career spanning over twenty years, Matt Damon has proven himself a solid actor who almost always delivers in a role, even if the movie around him is less than stellar. The films he has starred in run the gamut from critical darlings to box office smashes, and he has shown that he can carry a franchise as well as he can carry an indie flick. Barring some occasional missteps, his career has been a real showcase for his abilities. He has been nominated for a staggering number of awards, and won one Academy Award fresh out of the gate for 1998’s Good Will Hunting (although, oddly, that was for screenwriting).
Despite his recent controversial comments, he is a more than capable actor who has managed the rare thing of harnessing both star power and talent to great effect.
Here is Screen Rant’s list of the 10 Best Matt Damon Performances of All Time.
Good Will Hunting (1998)
Good Will Hunting was Matt Damon’s star-making role, the film that showed just how much he had to offer not just as an actor, but as a behind-the-scenes player. The script was famously written by Damon and best friend Ben Affleck, and earned them an Oscar for their very first major project. Considering they were essentially nobodies in Hollywood at the time of production (their previous minor roles hadn’t made many waves), it was a struggle to get the film made, with many studios balking at the idea of casting the young writers in the film. Luckily, those protests never came to fruition.
In the movie, Damon plays Will Hunting, a precociously intelligent but troubled young man who navigates his life with assistance from a court-ordered therapist played by Robin Williams. Damon perfectly captures Will’s opposing qualities: his smug intelligence and deep self-hate, his smirking charm and genuine vulnerability, and his simmering, barely-contained anger. It was a career-making performance.
Rounders wasn’t a huge hit upon its release, but it found a fan base later on and eventually became something of a cult hit amongst poker fans, as well as a favorite of Damon enthusiasts. It tells the story of two friends (Damon and Ed Norton) playing a whole lot of poker to pay off a big debt; “rounder” refers to someone who travels around looking for big games.
Damon plays another gifted young man resisting the siren call of fulfilling his promise, though in this case his gift leads to some very dangerous situations. His character’s journey from promising law student to eager card shark, and the tug to defect from a respectable sort of life to a more exciting one, could easily be a cautionary tale, but Rounders is too busy enjoying the game to worry about that. Damon is the perfect person to capture that journey. He has always been able to play a good guy with an edge, the kind of nice, smart boy you’d bring home to mom but without being bland or priggish. There’s always something fascinating going on below the surface with him.
Damon took something of a backseat in Kevin Smith’s Catholicism-themed comedy Dogma. He was part of an ensemble, playing one of two fallen angels (the other portrayed by Ben Affleck again) seeking to return to heaven thanks to a loophole in Catholic dogma. However, this would end up bringing about the end of civilization as we know it, which motivates the rest of the characters in the film to try and stop them. The roles of angels Loki (Damon) and Bartleby (Affleck) were something of a play on both actors’ established images. The media had ascribed Damon all the intellectual gravitas in the friendship post-Good Will Hunting, with Affleck as his doofy screwball sidekick. In Dogma, Affleck plays the rational and clever one, with Damon as his impatient, hotheaded partner in crime.
The film leans heavily into the existing friendship between the two men, lending an easy camaraderie to their onscreen presence. Damon clearly relishes the quickfire dialogue and volatile character, showing off his natural flair for comedy. One of the film’s highlights features Loki letting loose in a conference room full of sinners, bringing down violent justice as he tries to regain his former position as Angel of Death.
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
The Talented Mr. Ripley is a dark movie in a picturesque setting, a visual metaphor for its ongoing exploration of deception, the idea that appearances are not what they seem and trust is merely a stepping stone. Matt Damon exemplifies this as Tom Ripley, playing up a naïve and boyish quality that is undercut by Tom’s sociopathic tendencies. Tom is a smart but penniless young man (a Damon staple) who is enlisted to retrieve the spoiled son of a wealthy businessman in Rome. Tom ends up falling for said son, Dickie (an equally adept and absurdly good-looking Jude Law), to the point of not just wanting to be around him, but wanting to be him. Tom wants Dickie’s life – his name, his standing, his freedom – and he gets it at great cost.
What’s remarkable is that Damon is able to make Tom sympathetic even as he takes advantage of everyone around him – and even as he kills. Tom’s behavior never comes off as entirely premeditated and though he is clearly conniving, Damon is able to twist it into something multi-faceted. The internal push-pull between Tom’s desires, instincts, and warped sense of right and wrong is expressed with the perfect lurking horror under Damon’s good boy façade.
Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
Damon again takes a secondary role in this ensemble film, but manages to make the most of his screen time nonetheless. Ocean’s Eleven is a slick heist movie set in Las Vegas and Damon plays one of many criminal experts in a nice suit – in this case the part of a young and somewhat inexperienced pickpocket named Linus. It would be easy to get lost amongst a cast of such big name actors, but Damon stands out. He does what could be considered his “default” onscreen persona: snarky, brash, and quick-witted with an underlying gravitas that grounds the character.
The Bourne Identity (2002)
The Bourne Identity is one of those rare blockbusters that was a smash both financially and critically, going on to spawn a franchise that’s still going. While it wasn’t Damon’s very first big budget film, it was his first action film and probably the biggest movie to rest entirely on his shoulders up until that point. It created a bridge between the beginning half of his career to the next, and was a natural step after the success of Ocean’s Eleven.
In the film, he plays a CIA agent with amnesia who is trying to track down answers to who he is and why he was injured at the start of the film. While the movie was criticized in some reviews for a thinness of plot, Damon’s solid presence and dedication to the material makes up for it falling short in other places.
The Departed (2006)
A huge commercial and critical hit, Martin Scorsese’s The Departed focuses on intersections of the police force and the mob in Boston. Damon plays Colin Sullivan, a corrupt police officer secretly answering to mob boss Frank Costello (played by Jack Nicholson) and a foil to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Billy Costigan, an undercover officer infiltrating the mob. Both men end up trying to out the other, and this drives a portion of the film’s tension.
Damon continues his career-long tradition of playing characters with something to hide. He is an expert at appearing calm and in control while internally being a mess of tension and anxiety. Such extremes cannot coexist for long, and watching Damon as Sullivan build to a crescendo and then crack is exhilarating.
True Grit (2010)
A Coen brothers film, True Grit is a Western about a teenage girl (Hailee Steinfeld) who hires a U.S. Marshal (Jeff Bridges) to track down her father’s killer (Josh Brolin). Damon plays a Texas Ranger also on the killer’s trail for an unrelated crime, and the unlikely three end up together on the quest, which takes them deep into the Arkansas wilderness.
It’s inching towards more of a character actor type of performance for Damon, with a put-on twang to his voice, a rather slapdash looking mustache, and a fair amount of fringe on his costume. It’s visually distinct and different from a lot of Damon’s work, though the level of complexity and detail is a trademark. He takes what could be ridiculous and imbues it with genuine warmth, bringing the character to life instead of just playing straight to the mustache and fringe.
Behind the Candelabra (2013)
Behind the Candelabra is unique in the Damon oeuvre not for its glitzy subject matter, but for the very contained performance he gives in it. The film tells the story of Scott Thorson (Damon) and his tumultuous romance with famously campy pianist Liberace (Michael Douglas) in the years preceding Liberace’s death. While Douglas is appropriately flashy in his role, Damon’s Scott is the opposite: reserved, awkward, unable to express himself adequately, and probably not really all that smart. It stands out amongst Damon’s other roles for how internal it is, as well as for his ability to make such a quiet character so engrossing.
The film was produced for television by HBO after languishing in development hell for roughly five years (though director Steven Soderbergh had had the idea for the film as far back as 2000), with Douglas and Damon remaining adamantly signed on the entire time. Many studios didn’t want to fund it because of subject matter, but upon its release it was critically acclaimed.
The Martian (2015)
Damon’s most recent triumph, The Martian, is a space-set film wherein Damon’s Mark Watney is an astronaut accidentally left on Mars after he is presumed dead. He then must do whatever he can to survive as he attempts to contact NASA for assistance. The film received praise for its deeply human story, as well as the warmth and humor Damon brought to it.
The film could easily become something of a one man show for Damon, who spends large stretches of its running time alone as Watney records himself and his various attempts to both stay alive and keep his morale up. His easy demeanor and comfortable charisma make him engaging to watch even when he only has the camera to play against. It isn’t easy for an actor to carry such a large weight (even though it is an ensemble film at heart, that is still a lot of solitary acting) but Damon makes it look effortless.
Did we miss any especially incredible performances? Let us know in the comments!