By Mikhail Karadimov June 12th, 2015
There are certain people who I look at and instantly know: “I want to punch you in the fucking face.” I can’t quite describe why. It’s an arrangement of the face and its features, maybe a perceivable weakness, a soft chin, a short and fat neck, eyes that are too close or too far apart. I can’t put my finger on it. Nor do I want to.
I’m not saying it’s mature or civilized. Nor am I saying that I’m a better person for admitting to it (although, c’mon….why not…?). All I’m saying is that it’s animal. It comes right from the gut. Like a shot of acrid bile. I taste it in the back of my tongue and I feel my face scrunching up, twisting, agonizing over this strangely organized face.
(Mind you: this has nothing to do with beauty or ugliness. It’s more ineffable than that.)
Paul Dano’s got a face like that. I see him on the screen and my flesh shrieks. I don’t know the man, have never heard him speak in an interview, all the same, my blood pumps at an accelerated rate whenever I see or hear him, it boils, it gets to my senses, my brain, and blankets me in red rage. I can’t think straight. His face is round, like the moon, but softer, smoother, like baby skin. And his lips are thin, so thin that they look like they’re crawling back into his mouth. His hair is typically in a forward flop, over his forehead. I hesitate to call them bangs; he does sweep them aside every so often.
I don’t know…it goes deeper than that. I don’t like his technique. I don’t like the fact that I call it technique. So mechanical. So affected. I see the gears, the cogs, the wires, I see his brain, that intellectual interior, tugging him around like an animatronic puppet. I look at his eyes and I see him counting the beats, calculating the pauses. It’s hardened. Almost didactic. Metallic. I can’t say I’ve ever warmed to any of his characters. Even in the failed 2012 Rom Com Ruby Sparks where he plays an ineffectual writer boy who can’t get over the pressures of writing a follow-up novel to his debut hit. That aforementioned face of his, that downed softness—which you would assume would be played for sympathy, for empathy—is calcified with technicality, with too much preparation. Dano likes to prognosticate his performances it seems, lay them out before him as a deeply beaten path, rather than let it flow, let it come out in small, spontaneous bursts. He thinks big, grand, he thinks thespian, as opposed to details.
And that might be it: I don’t think Dano’s ever created a gesture, a move, an annunciation, that’s thrown me off my guard. It’s all forecasted.
The only times I’ve been able to bear his presence in a film is when he’s played odious drips. Like Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood. He’s effective because Paul Thomas Anderson needs someone on screen that the audience will eventually come to hate more than Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis). Daniel Plainview is a despicable man. No two ways about it. Loathsome. But he’s also the protagonist of a 158-minute-long movie. That’s a lot of time to be spending with a piece of shit. How do you mollify such shittiness? You cast someone even more loathsome, a little weasel of a fellow. You take one look at Eli, his weak chin, his lipless lips, his under formed body, the underbelly suppleness of his skin and fat, you hear the God talk, you hear the amateurish business talk, you hear the blatant opportunistic trill of his voice, and right away you root for Daniel to clobber this silly boy dead. (Which he does).
Then there’s Prisoners. Another great example of how my irrational hate works in Dano’s favor. He’s cast to look like a pederast. You’re supposed to glimpse him once, just as Hugh Jackman’s vigilante father does, and know—believe!—that he’s capable of kidnapping a pair of adolescent girls. And then, once Jackman’s Keller gets his hands on Dano’s throat and once he starts pummeling him to bits—his face going all mushy with black and blue and rivulets of red—utter catharsis oozes up and out of my pores and glazes over every inch of my body. This is it. This guy’s getting exactly what he deserves. What he needs.
It may seem odd, dedicating so many words to an actor I can’t stand the sight of. But there’s a reason. I finally caught the new Brian Wilson movie Love & Mercy—solid movie, decent movie, somewhat tired, somewhat fresh, but not enough of either for me to catch goosebumps—the other night at Nitehawk Cinemas and decided to think about Dano one more time.
Brian Wilson was mentally and emotionally crippled by a mid-flight panic attack, grounding him for his 1965 tour with The Beach Boys. During that time, while his brothers and cousins were playing from one city to the next, Brian stuck behind to start work on Pet Sounds. It was then that his auditory hallucinations, and schizoaffective disorder, kicked into overdrive conjuring aberrant sounds and voices out of thin air. It was these errant sounds that would come to inform his masterful album.
Brian Wilson is part boy, part genius, and part loony bin. Which means he’s bound to do off putting things and alienate those around him. He’s got those jowls, that round face, he’s got that strange and off putting way of addressing people with candid familiarity, as if his audience were nothing more than a mirror. Perfect for Dano. Even more perfect, and unusual, in that the character isn’t detestable. Everything that grates my sensibilities about Dano’s earlier performances, the same exact ticks and formal, wooden maneuvers suddenly make sense while inhabiting the life of a manic depressive. So when Dano’s moves are stilted or overthought, it’s because he plays someone with ever-shifting mood swings, a man who self-scrutinizes his every move, analyzes every word, every thought, every thought’s thought. Finally, Dano has found a character who allows him, the actor, to stay in his head, to be paralyzed by his own doubts. It works. And so does the goofy face. He looks like an absolute child. And that’s the point. Brian Wilson was rarely his own man. He had others to taunt and manipulate him, bully him into what they wanted. Selfish dudes, vicious dudes. First it was his pops, and then it was the insane Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).He lived an insulated world, a childish world, and Paul Dano has a face that perfectly suits Brian’s inability to grow. Dano’s face refuses to age or mature, it only softens with every passing year.
Every actor, every director, every writer—and so on—settles into the same sandbox. Half the battle is finding out what part of the sandbox belongs to you, where you can play unimpeded by your limitations. Dano needs to stretch the margins of his skill as much as he can—as any artist should—and play to everything within those elastic confines. I think he’s on the right track, that he’s figuring out his countenance, his demeanor, his posture, and playing to it. Even though Love & Mercy will most likely come and go—despite its attempt to occasionally strive away from the roundabout trappings of every other music biopic—I think his performance is a solid one and a step in the right direction. He just needs to find the right scripts.