Oscar spotlight: Why ‘West Side Story’s’ Mike Faist deserves to go all the way

During the climactic rumble in “West Side Story,” Riff (Mike Faist) spins away from Tony (Ansel Elgort) and right into the knife held by Bernardo (David Alvarez). Everyone is frozen in shock as Riff turns back towards Tony, his face crumpled, looking younger than ever, tears welling up in his eyes. “It’s OK, it’s OK,” he tells his BFF. No one would question it if we got an agonizing slow death right then, but instead, Riff smiles, his face morphs into chilling clarity — dead eyes right before he’s about to drop dead — and he coolly (no pun intended) orders Tony to “take it out.” It’s a heart-stopping, devastating beat, played to perfection by Faist, who deserves some Oscar love for putting a new twist on an old character we all thought we knew.

Of the numerous changes in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the 1957 Broadway musical, Riff’s characterization is the biggest (yes, that includes turning Doc into Rita Moreno’s Valentina). In the 1961 Best Picture-winning film in which Russ Tamblyn plays the Jets leader, Riff is an exuberant, cocky BMOC who thinks he’s going to live forever, like we all do when we’re young and dumb and think we’re invincible. He’s so full of life that that’s why his eventual death (if you didn’t know it was coming from the musical’s “Romeo and Juliet”-inspired origins) feels surprising and untimely. Faist’s Riff is the opposite; this Riff is a kid who sees no future and knows he will die young, and either accepts it or doesn’t care or both. He, like Faist’s performance, lives on a razor’s edge. And his death hits just as hard, if not more. Both incarnations are great and fitting for their films, but the nihilistic portrayal by Faist — who worked with screenwriter Tony Kushner on the character and studied Bruce Davidson’s famous Brooklyn Gang photos from the ‘50s — lends a complexity and verisimilitude to Riff that had heretofore never been seen and a deep understanding of his weary worldview.

Fueled by anger, desperation and fear masking as bravado, Riff is an abandoned lost boy who sees nothing in front of him but the Jets and just wants to go back to the way things were, with Tony as the gang leader, him as his right-hand man and the Sharks nowhere in sight. Tony’s reluctance to resume his position after his release from prison only exacerbates Riff’s hopelessness and rage, which Faist captures with increasingly chaotic urgency — between pressing a gun barrel to his forehead when he goes to procure a firearm and the entire “Cool” sequence that occurs pre-rumble like in the musical instead of after like in the ’61 film and was reworked to offer a snapshot of Riff and Tony’s fraying relationship. Faist improvised the gun move, an inspired bit that gives Riff automatic enshrinement into the Unhinged Sidekicks Hall of Fame next to the likes of Jem (Jeremy Renner, Oscar-nominated) from Ben Affleck’s 2010 film (and his best, don’t @ me) “The Town.” (Riff would definitely say, “Whose car we gonna take?” to Tony and sip garbage soda before walking out to blaze of gunfire.)

SEE ‘West Side Story’ breakout Mike Faist on making Riff his own: ‘Start fresh and go back to the text’

While nihilism is bone-deep in Riff, that darkness far from weighs down Faist’s performance. He pops off the screen the second Riff, simultaneously emaciated and imposing like a fearless street rat, enters the frame, bursting with a live-wire magnetism that you can’t take your eyes off of. By the end of “Jet Song,” you’re just thinking, “Why isn’t Mike Faist in all the movies?”

This is the 30-year-old Ohio native’s breakout film role, but he’s no newcomer, having spent the past decade on Broadway in “Newsies” and “Dear Evan Hansen,” earning a Tony nomination in 2017 for the latter for originating the role of Connor Murphy (another character who dies early and leaves you wanting more). He won a Grammy for the “Dear Evan Hansen” cast recording and a Daytime Emmy for the cast’s “Today Show” performance of “You Will Be Found,” so, yeah, he just needs an Oscar bid to be an EGOT nominee.

At the moment, Faist is in seventh place in the Best Supporting Actor odds. While his co-stars Ariana DeBose and Rachel Zegler have earned various nominations and wins, the actor has been AWOL at the major precursors thus far (though “West Side Story” had late screeners at the Screen Actors Guild Awards). He has a few critics awards mentions to his name, including a runner-up placement at the National Society of Film Critics, and has been longlisted at BAFTA. The snubs could be attributed to “West Side Story’s” late arrival, his unknown status, and how virtually no one had tagged Riff as a possible award-winning role before the film screened. Because it’s never been one before. The fact that Faist is in seventh, in a very unsettled category, despite the lack of precursor support speaks to the passion people have for his performance once they see it. It’s an unexpected, surprising turn in so many ways, and those, arguably, make for the best, or at least the most gratifying, nominations. Let’s hope Oscar voters do the right thing and vote for this Jet all the way.

Oscar odds for Best Supporting Actor
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