10 Best Jesse Plemons Performances, Ranked

The work of actor Jesse Plemons has long been worth seeking out. With a subtle edge to his performances, he is a tactical yet compelling screen presence in every role he takes part in. Whether his parts are big or small, he always leaves an impact with each moment he gets.

Now, with Plemons making the most of another role in Scott Cooper’s finally released Antlers hitting theaters Friday, it is worth taking a look back on all of the actor’s work to find his best performance up until now. It is a list that will most certainly need to be revisited the moment after his next appearances so consider this his best performances until he inevitably blows us away once more.

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10. Antlers

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This flawed yet fascinating look at the perils facing one rural Oregon town is the newest film from Plemons on this list. It’s harrowing, shining a light not just on the mythical terrors lurking in the darkness but on the real-life ones as well. Using horror as an allegory for societal decay, Plemons stars as Paul, the town sheriff and brother of Keri Russell’s Julia Meadows. Julia has returned home and is noticing that one of her students, Lucas, seems to be going to a dark place.

It is a morally murky world and Paul fits right in with that, frequently failing to act at key moments that could have helped his sister protect Lucas. Plemons says a lot with very little, showing how broken down he has become. In the film’s final moments, Paul realizes the path his life has taken and where it will lead. It is a scene of quiet and profound terror, seen in the depths of panic in his eyes that burrow deep into your very soul. The life Plemons gives to this character makes it a brief yet standout performance.

9. Friday Night Lights

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One of the actor’s earliest roles, Plemons played Landry Clarke, a quiet, often shy boy. However, moments of emotion burst through in key scenes that all feel natural and fit in with the tone of the show. Plemons still has a lot of work to do to overcome one of the series most out of left field storylines that has long divided fans: a storyline about covering up a murder that the writers clearly didn’t have a handle on as they abruptly dump it. Despite all this, Plemons still plays the scenes well. He is scared and uncertain about what he did, authentically capturing how he is wracked with guilt. His early performance set him up for far better written works in the future that were more deserving of his talents.

8. Hostiles

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Another film Plemons worked on with Antlers director Cooper, the actor played a supporting yet significant role in this cinematic meditation on violence set in the late 1800s. In it, Plemons played Lt. Rudy Kidder who, after an initial attack, is standing watch over what remains of the group who has already sustained casualties. He is stunned and shaken, though still trying to put on a brave face.

Kidder remarks that he has never killed before and Plemons’ performance ensures the scene is a sober reflection on the toll that such violence can take on you.The dialogue is simple and straightforward, though no less effective. When Kidder is told that “you get used to it, doesn’t mean a thing” he responds back with the devastating line “that’s what I’m afraid of.” This response and Plemons’ delivery instills the film with a brutal pain that can’t be shaken. The scene is the film’s quietest, yet one of its most impactful and memorable in a story full of them.

7. Black Mirror: USS Callister

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Image via Netflix

The last couple of seasons of Black Mirror have been rather hit or miss, though the first episode of the fourth season is one of the absolute hits. The story centers on Plemons’ Robert Daly, a seemingly awkward yet brilliant programmer who has built a widely popular massively multiplayer online (MMO) game. Daly escapes into this world of his own creation where he has taken the DNA of his colleagues to create digital clones.

Plemons plays both the real-life, repressed nerd version of himself who is scheming to control his coworkers while also playing the fantasy version of himself. This is an impressive balancing act of a performance as he carries himself differently as each person while still being informed by the same sociopathic tendencies. There are moments of dark humor where the visual language of the Star Trek recreation allows for many referential gags, though Plemons ensures it never shifts too far into becoming solely a parody. It is his villainous performance that grounds it, making for an unshakably nightmarish presence.

6. Other People

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Image via Vertical Entertainment

What is likely to be the most unknown film on this list, Other People is a heartfelt comedy about loss and family that sees Plemons bringing a compelling charm to a character facing a crisis. He plays David, a comedy writer who is struggling to catch a break. His mother has cancer, his father stopped supporting him after he came out as gay, and he is coming off a breakup with his boyfriend. So yeah, things aren’t going great for David.

The film would not work as well as it does without Plemons in the lead, as he delicately threads the vulnerability and wit that defines who David is. From when he makes painfully awkward jokes on an ill-fated date or when he has a breakdown in the grocery store attempting to get medicine for his mom, Plemons walks a fine tonal tightrope that he far too easily could have fallen off of. It remains one of his most challenging and underappreciated films that deserves more praise. It isn’t as flashy as many of his roles, though it remains one of his moving.

5. Game Night

A film that has no business being as good as it is, Game Night is the most straightforward comedy on this list and sees Plemons really getting to let loose as an unabashedly strange character. Plemons is Gary, the neighbor to the couple of Jason Bateman’s Max and Rachel McAdam’s Annie. Circling in the background is Gary, who never gets invited to the game nights because he is….to put it lightly….rather bizarre. He is always watching his neighbors and just lurks around.

On top of his jokes, he ends up being a core part of the story of the film itself when it is revealed how much of what is happening to the main characters all traces back to him. While it is by no means the most thrilling of a crime drama, the late shift seen in Gary adds just enough subterfuge to also make it rather engaging. Plemons is the key to most of these moments and proved he could play against type by embracing the absurdity to his character. Without him, it wouldn’t be nearly as memorable, as his performance is consistently funny at every turn.

4. Breaking Bad

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The maniacal and meticulous Todd is one of the most unexpected villains to appear in a show in recent memory. Plemons plays the character with an unnerving youthful innocence that is mixed with an uncaring cruelty that makes him deeply unsettling. The moment where he shoots a kid who discovers the crew’s illegal operations is shocking but not entirely surprising. All of the details he brings to the role made it clear that he was always going to be a dire threat to all the other characters he comes into contact with. He is cold and soulless in his unmatched selfishness.

When his character begins to torture Jesse, who he has made his captive, Plemons treats it just as if it is a chore he must do, like he is taking out the trash. It is just another thing to be done in the world of his criminal enterprise and he is the one that will have to do it. When he kills those that Jesse loves more than even himself, it marks another loss in his life that sends him over the edge. It was a role that made me begin to loathe Plemons as he gives a performance that almost makes it hard to ever see him in anything else. He is a fully embodied nightmare.

3. Judas and the Black Messiah

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The history being told in Judas and the Black Messiah elicits outrage as it tells the story of state violence being undertaken against the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party. Specifically, it targets the group’s powerful and caring leader Fred Hampton, portrayed by an outstanding Daniel Kaluuya. Hampton was targeted and assassinated by his own government for his activism. It is Plemons who completely brings the head of the operation, Special Agent Roy Martin Mitchell, into existence.

Obviously, the center of the story rightly focuses on creating a portrait of Hampton and the Black Panther Party itself with Mitchell as their antagonist. However, Plemons ensures that his antagonist feels all too real as he pulls the strings that will lead to disaster for Hampton and the others. Plemons gives himself over completely to being the figurehead of racist state violence, creeping in the background and ready to destroy countless lives. When O’Neal sees him in the crowd at a rally and his face falls, it hinges on believing the terrifying figure Plemons has created. He masterfully fills that role, instilling fear with just a simple glance.

2. Fargo: Season 2

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Image via FX

One of the best seasons of television of all time, the second season of Fargo takes some of what made the first season great and only grows it from there. Plemons is excellent in an already stacked cast and makes the character all his own. The way he plays his character Ed feels so real and comprehensive that you begin to feel like he is real. Plemons carries his heart and soul on his sleeve all the way through. As his dreams burn up before his very eyes, you feel the pain and sorrow coursing through him as he realizes his life is forever changed.

It should also be noted that Plemons is hilarious, hitting all the comedic notes with the perfect timing in tone and deadpan delivery. When it all comes together where we see some of the final scenes with Ed, he speaks with such a strong sense of clarity that is all set up by his well-established presence throughout the show. Plemons is just flawless in every single moment he’s on screen. It all marks what would have been his hands down best performance if not for how he topped himself yet again.

1. I’m Thinking of Ending Things

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Image via Netflix

A masterpiece from one of the greatest American directors of all time, Charlie Kaufman, I’m Thinking of Ending Things also features a masterclass in acting from its cast who peel back the many layers of its story. The performance Plemons gives is nothing short of a subtle masterclass in saying a lot with very little. He speaks volumes with the simplest change of expression or posture. Even as he is but one puzzle piece amongst many he fits in as snugly as one can in an emotionally chaotic narrative.

His performance here resonates in a way unlike before. Just as Kaufman worked with Philip Seymour Hoffman in Synecdoche, New York to create a magnificent collaboration, he does so here with Plemons to create a beautifully overwhelming outcome. With a plethora of scenes that rely heavily on the actors just talking in a car or a home or the abandoned school towards the end, the performances ensure it is emotionally evocative. It is certain to be one of Plemons’ most ambitious and fully realized films that he will ever take part in.

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