Friday, July 15, 2016

The man with the good choices

During one of the moments Swiss Army Man left me spellbound last night, I had a revelation that was only tangentially related to the movie:

Paul Dano may be my favorite actor.

If we define "favorite" as consistently appearing in movies that I've loved, and his presence alone making me believe a movie will be good, then I don't know who has a better claim to that title than Dano.

As I allowed myself to get momentarily distracted from the bizarre delights appearing before my eyes, I started to mentally review all the films I love that Dano has appeared in. The numbers started to stagger me. I'll list them below chronologically, followed by the percentage on my Flickchart where these movies appear:

L.I.E. (2001, Michael Cuesta) - 81% - Though to be fair, I didn't actually remember that Dano was in this movie until I just looked it up on IMDB.

The Emperor's Club (2002, Michael Hoffman) - 83% - Ditto about not knowing he was in this. Don't worry, we're getting to the point where I actually started to recognize him.

The Girl Next Door (2004, Luke Greenfield) - 92% - Where I first consciously learned who he was. I have a huge fondness for this movie.

Little Miss Sunshine (2006, Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris) - 67% - I don't love this how some people do -- or used to, anyway -- but I thought the percentage was high enough to mention.

There Will Be Blood (2007, Paul Thomas Anderson) - 99% - My #1 movie of 2007. He really did hold his own next to Daniel Day-Lewis.

Where the Wild Things Are (2009, Spike Jonze) - 97% - This is Dano's most similar film to Swiss Army Man in terms of the sense of wonder it produced in me.

Meek's Cutoff (2011, Kelly Reichardt) - 89% - Dano's role was more supporting in this, but it continues his string of smart choices.

Ruby Sparks (2012, Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris) - 98% - My #1 movie of 2012. Dano holds the center of an unconventional romantic comedy/drama.

Looper (2012, Rian Johnson) - 91% - A memorable portrait of desperation by Dano.

Love & Mercy (2015, Bill Pohlad) - 87% - Dano kills it as the younger Brian Wilson.

And that's not even mentioning movies I like but don't love, like Prisoners, Fast Nood Nation and 12 Years a Slave. And sure I've left out some stinkers -- I'm looking at you, Gigantic -- but nobody's perfect.

What is it about Dano that continually enthralls me?

The short answer is probably "everything," but I'll try to go deeper than that. He is one of the most aggressively real-looking A-list actors we have. He might not quite be A-list, but he's a lot farther away than that from being conventionally handsome, or even unconventionally handsome. He's a weird-looking dude who manages to simultaneously look like a stiff breeze might blow him over, yet also possess a real vigor that comes across in the intensity of his performances.

To say that Dano is like you and me is not accurate either, since he really isn't. He's like an eccentric caricature of a regular person, which is not a description of his performance style -- at least not totally. Saying someone is a caricature is usually a criticism. What I mean is that his features have a certain extremity to them that makes him a perfect vessel for quirky characters. To Dano's credit, though, he has steered clear of playing exclusively quirky characters, and even his quirkiest characters don't deserve the backhanded compliment implied by the term "quirky."

In short, I feel like he's bringing something new every time out, even when he's undeniably calling on things he's done previously (which all actors must). He's growing as a craftsman, sure, but more than that he's figuring new ways to extract the truth from the characters he's playing. He does tend to do better when he's in a lead role, as it gives him the space to move around and explore the character he's been assigned to play. As one example, I think he might not have come off that well in a movie like 12 Years a Slave -- as I recall, he was petulant and a bit of an out-sized stereotype of an awful slaveowner. This was a supporting role. Then again, he haunted me in a similar-sized role in Looper, in which he gives one of the most palpable performances of fear I've seen in the past couple years.

Even if it's not possible to distill what works about Dano as a performer, the choices speak for themselves. Six of the ten films I listed above landed in my top ten for that particular year. Meek's Cutoff and (if I remember correctly) The Emperor's Club may have landed in the top 20. I didn't actually see L.I.E. in the year of its release, so who knows about that one. So not only does Dano have good taste, but he has the influence to get himself cast in the projects in which he wants to appear. Powerhouses like Paul Thomas Anderson and Spike Jonze have seen him and said "That's the guy I need to do this particular thing I'm trying to do."

And boy does he do that particular thing in Swiss Army Man. My affection for Swiss Army Man is such that I should probably devote an entire post to singing its praises. Instead, I'll refer you to my review, which is a bit delayed in posting but will probably be up with a link to the right within a few hours of this publishing.

Daniel Radcliffe may play the multi-functional tool in that film's title, but Dano is my multi-functional tool as an actor.


faggghaggg said...

All of which probably means that you and Dano, both movie buffs, have the same taste in film. Lucky you… My preferences are pretty much the opposite of his, yet I'm obliged to watch everything he's in because he's my favorite actor too. I've been analyzing what makes him so unique, and I think you're definitely on to something when you note that he's physically frail yet intense in his acting – aggressive, even, as one director put it. Though Dano isn't the best actor I know, I can't think of anyone else working today who's such a study in contrasts, and it goes way beyond his physicality. Holding his own against Daniel Day-Lewis in "Blood" after the original actor cast as Eli Sunday folded gave him an early leg up in the business: still looking like a teenager, he became the go-to actor when a giant of the acting world needed to be paired with a young talent able to remain unfazed in the presence of exalted company (see Brian Cox, Kevin Kline, Robert DeNiro). In contrast to his aggressive acting style, his reputation for being friendly, polite and thoroughly professional offscreen kept the offers coming; all this, I believe, was what got him to a place where he can now pick and choose his projects.

Moving down the list of contradictions, I've noticed that Dano's physical acting is often at odds with what his voice is doing – a neat trick that adds depth to a performance by sending subliminal messages to the viewer (check it out sometime – watch him without sound, then listen without watching). His famously punchable face, invaluable for playing weaselly cowards, has an uncanny ability to also look sweet and innocent to the point of adorableness, which has enabled him to move into leading-man territory with the recent "Love & Mercy" and "War and Peace". Then there's the matter of him looking feminine while coming across as a dude's dude; I'm not sure what this brings to his work, but it's certainly disorienting enough to keep us watching. His intensity, too, is of a quiet sort, resulting in accusations of underacting and overacting simultaneously. (Although I agree with you that the overacting mostly happens in supporting roles, as is often the case with talented character actors making a cameo appearance, I'm fond of his turn in "12 Years a Slave" but have an acute dislike of the one in "Looper" – so even agreement on his general tendencies ends in contradiction.) Lastly, there's the contrast that's got me hooked: despite not being any kind of good-looking, Dano's sexy, and the nature of his sex appeal is a deeper enigma than whatever makes him so enthralling an actor.

So what are your expectations for the future of his career? I admit I'm a little disconcerted with the lack of awards, or indeed nominations – has the entire Academy landed in the "overacting" camp? – but he's got plenty of time to catch up. I wouldn't be surprised if he eventually became the next Day-Lewis, and it may be precisely what he has in mind: given that he doesn't have DDL's leading-man looks, the choices he's been making are along the same route. I'm also impatient to see "Wildlife", his directing debut, which is due out this year. I don't expect to like it, but I hope you do, and I'll look forward to your review. It does my heart good to hear Paul praised even when I disagree. :)

Derek Armstrong said...

Thanks for the detailed response, Faggghaggg! I like your idea that Dano eventually inherits the mantle of the best actor of his generation, though of course he does have some competition. It's true that awards-giving bodies have not seemed to come around on him. I think he's a "love him or hate him" type. As you so perfectly put it, he has a "punchable" face, which makes people think he's weaselly or in some other way smarmy or weak. I think he doesn't acquire fans who have aspirational reasons for liking him -- very few people want to be him. But if you can get past that and just admire the craft, I think you've got a really distinctive performer here, one who makes everything he's in better. And even since I've written this, he's made another good choice: Okja, which you ought to see if you haven't yet. Indeed, he brings his distinct Paul Dano-ness to this performance as well. :-)

I didn't even know he was in a War & Peace miniseries, which I will now have to seek out. Thanks for bringing that to my attention. His upcoming projects in IMDB seem rather sparse, but since Dano can do what he wants, I have to imagine it's by choice. Was also not aware of Wildlife and will look out for that.

Thanks for the comment!

faggghaggg said...

Well, nobody found his Brian Wilson and Pierre Bezukhov punchable, so I think the aspirational crowd would come around if he got cast as an action hero or a romantic lead and presented accordingly. It's unlikely to happen in Hollywood, but European cinema is not as stuck on looks, and his turn in "War and Peace" was such a huge hit both in Britain and in Russia that he's got two European projects in the works where he'll be playing an action hero of sorts. The working titles are "7500" and "The Englishman", so keep an eye out (both are listed on IMDb as "in development", so let's hope they materialize). I didn't like either "War and Peace" or "Okja", but that's old news.:)