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.

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