Jesse Plemons’ Disturbing ‘Civil War’ Scene Will Haunt You

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty/A24
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty/A24

It’s fair to ask: Is Jesse Plemons OK? He seems like the loveliest guy, but just looking through his IMDb is enough to make you want to re-up on therapy: Breaking Bad; I’m Thinking of Ending Things; The Irishman; Black Mirror; Black Mass; Hostiles…it’s a dark and heavy list. And that’s ignoring his more recent (and arguably even more depressing) run of films like Judas and the Black Messiah, The Power of the Dog, and Killers of the Flower Moon. Sure, he’s taken breaks from tough films with roles in movies like Jungle Cruise and Game Night. But even in Game Night, he plays an incredibly disturbing (and funny) cop who’s reeling over his wife leaving him.

Plemons, whether he likes it or not, is well on his way to becoming the premier movie creep. It’s his own fault: He dives headfirst into the depths of his characters. making him impossible to look away from. And if he continues to be as brilliant as he is in his extraordinarily intense, scene- (and movie-)stealing performance in Alex Garland’s Civil War, he might have to give up and accept that this is his niche.

[Warning: Spoilers for Civil War follow.]

Civil War, now in theaters, drops us into a conflict with minimal context. The film follows a group of journalists and war photographers determined to score an interview with the president (Nick Offerman), who hasn’t spoken to the press in years. A war has broken out in America—we don’t know why, just that it’s happening. While the president publicly claims that the war is almost over, everything else we see suggests otherwise.

As they travel across the country, our central press corps is regularly exposed to horrifying violence, something their careers have allowed them to become desensitized to. That’s especially the case for Lee (Kirsten Dunst), a hardened and experienced war photographer who has been at the forefront of countless conflicts.

As such, the film is initially imbued with an ironic sense of comfort. Despite pummeling the viewer with upsetting imagery, Lee, Joel (Wagner Moura), Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), and young upstart Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) never face a genuine threat—that is, until they run into Plemons’ unnamed character. After meeting some of Joel’s old journalism buddies Tony (Nelson Lee) and Bohai (Evan Lai), Jessie takes off in a car with them to head to Washington, D.C. When Lee and company catch up to them, they’ve been taken by a pair of gun-toting militants, one of which is Jesse Plemons.

Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst, Cailee Spaeny, and Wagner Moura.

Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst, Cailee Spaeny, and Wagner Moura.


It’s clear these guys aren’t playing around. Before Lee and Joel approach—Sammy stays behind, because he’s got health problems and can’t run away if needed—we see Plemons’ character unload a bulldozer full of dead men into a pit. We can’t see what’s inside the pit, but it's safe to assume these aren’t the first people he and his crew have killed.

Alex Garland’s ‘Civil War’ Is an Explosive Warning Against a Trump Takeover

Before he even speaks, Plemons is able to present a full life through his physicality. Dressed in camouflage with piercing red sunglasses, his clothing suggests he’s military; but within a fractured America, knowing who he fights with and what he stands for is impossible. His posture is rigid and unwavering, suggesting he’s trained; his stare is vacant. For the first time, we can tell the characters we’ve been following are in an incredibly threatening, life-or-death situation—and it’s not just because we’ve seen what this man is capable of.

As Joel and Lee approach, they’re careful to note that they’re members of the press, a fact that’s gotten them and their colleagues out of many difficult situations. But that means nothing to Plemons, who speaks firmly, but not loudly. Their credentials aren’t important to him. There’s only one question Plemons wants answered, rifle in hand: “What kind of American are you?”

Plemons loads the question with malice, stating it curtly. The group can tell by the dead bodies around them that giving an unsatisfactory answer will be deadly. There’s also an obvious racial undertone to his question—a variation of the loaded “Where are you really from?” question that people of color are regularly faced with. To prove he’s not messing around, he doesn’t hesitate to shoot Bohai, killing him and leaving everyone shaken.

As the members of the press corps begs to be let go, voices quivering, bodies shaking, Plemons is chillingly still. There’s a nerve-shredding sense that he’s not only done this before, but he’s done it often. Plemons presses them for answers, demanding to know where they’re from. Tony has lost control, aggressively sobbing, and is now barely able to speak. But it’s not until, through floods of tears, he responds to Plemons’ question that we know why he’s so afraid: Bohai’s from Hong Kong, he says. Plemons responds by killing him without a moment’s hesitation.

‘Civil War’ Director Alex Garland Isn’t Shocked by the Discourse

Even Lee, whose answer of “Colorado” seems to please Plemons and ensure her safety, is distraught. She holds it together better than the others, but seeing these professionals who are otherwise steadfastly composed in the most frightening situations completely lose their cool is enough to leave you breathless.

Meanwhile, Plemons has no intentions of letting Joel go; that Joel is from Florida leaves a bad taste in his mouth. He seems to be relishing toying with Joel’s life, absorbing their cries and pleadings with a villainous cruelty. Suddenly, Sammy comes careening through in his car, knocking Plemons and his accomplice down and saving his friends lives, bringing this horrific scene to an end. But the film has one more trick up its sleeve.

The car also sends Jessie into the pit. Garland slowly pans out to reveal the depths of the pit as Jessie climbs out, which is completely full of dead bodies. Here, we see the full extent of what Jesse Plemons’ character is capable of, highlighting just how narrow Jessie, Joel, and Lee’s escape is.

Plemons’ performance turns Civil War on its head. It’s the closest we come to understanding the kind of conflict America has divided over, turning into a country where men can go around killing people they don’t see as “American” without any consequence. He is evil personified. That he does it so easily, and without pause, is what makes it so terrifying—and why he’ll be the first pick for chilling, tough roles for years to come.

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