Sunday, June 21, 2015

New movie review: Love & Mercy

Paul Dano plays the young Brian Wilson in Bill Pohlad's remarkable Love & Mercy.

Brian Wilson is a genius. Full stop. As the primary creative force behind The Beach Boys, he is responsible for crafting some of the catchiest pop melodies this side of The Beatles, and his complex musical and vocal arrangements have been and will be studied by musicians and critics for decades. His contributions to popular music are innumerable, and his influence is as widespread as it is singular. There is no one like him.

It is also indisputable that he has lived a hard life. Every step of the way, he was harassed, abused, and exploited by those around him. His petty, vindictive father terrorized him his whole life. He succumbed to drugs, alcohol abuse, and mental illness. He famously spent three years lying in bed, haunted by the voices in his head and the demons in his thoughts. His greatest gift is also his curse, and though the creative spirit he embodies has been battered and bruised by the world around him, it has not been broken.

The story of Wilson’s life is by turns haunting, surreal, sad, and triumphant and deserves a film of equal depth and complexity. That film is director-producer Bill Pohlad’s tender, beautiful Love & Mercy. Pohlad has spent most of his career as a producer, helping shepherd to the screen films such as 12 Years a Slave, The Tree of Life, and Brokeback Mountain. Here, he takes over the director’s chair for the first time in 25 years, and the results are stunning.

Working from a screenplay by Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner, Pohlad portrays Wilson’s life as a gorgeous, elliptical tone poem about the confused and hyperactive mind of a brilliant artist. Pohlad avoids the pitfalls of most by-the-numbers music biopics by not focusing on dry biography – though the film is impeccably researched and detailed – and instead presenting events as Wilson would have experienced and interpreted them.

John Cuscak and Elizabeth Banks in Love & Mercy.
The film is split into two parts given roughly equal weight. Paul Dano plays a younger Wilson shown struggling to take the band and its music in new directions with the recording of the now-legendary Pet Sounds. John Cusack plays Wilson two decades later, after his “bed” period and while under the control of psychiatrist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). During this time, he meets Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who tries to help him break free of Landy’s influence.

All of the performances are superb, and Banks in particular is a revelation. Known almost exclusively for her comedic roles, though some audiences will no doubt recognize her best as Effie Trinket from the Hunger Games films, Banks plumbs depths of emotional resolve and compassion that she has rarely been able to showcase. She more than rises to the challenge, exerting herself as the conscience of the film as Ledbetter is the only person we meet who sees Wilson for the man he is behind the myth.

Giamatti turns in typically excellent work as Landy, whose purposeful misdiagnosis allows him to take guardianship of Wilson and bend and manipulate him to his will with a cocktail of medications and psychological abuse. In an older but not-yet-wise Wilson, Cusack gets a role befitting his immense talent. Through all his lies and fabrications, Landy says one true thing – that Wilson is a boy in a man’s body – and Cusack’s subtle, introverted work perfectly captures that truth.

This half of the movie comprises a more traditional narrative, which is strong, if a bit clich├ęd and propped up by its wonderful actors. The sequences with younger Wilson, identified in the credits as “Past Brian,” are another matter altogether. In showing the process of creation, Pohlad mixes film stocks, plays tricks with the soundscape, and shuffles our perception of time to put the audience directly in the mind of a musician having an artistic and spiritual breakthrough.

Though the supporting performances are strong, Dano is like a one-man show through this section of the film. An actor who has showed immense promise in films as diverse as Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood, here, he realizes the full potential of his talents. Wilson cannot escape his past as every element of his life conspires to drag him back to a place of pain and misery. Dano embodies this man who wants so badly to please others and express himself artistically but keeps finding these two endeavors to be contradictory. Making full use of his face, voice, and mannerisms, Dano brings to life someone who is simultaneously breaking through and breaking down.

In service of all these wonderful performances, Pohlad provides an immaculately crafted world for his actors to explore and for his to take root. It is hard to think of a recent film that has used sound so well and in so many different ways. From the complete lack of artifice in Wilson’s hammering out of a rough version of “God Only Knows” to the sonic collage of past Beach Boys hits – provided by frequent Trent Reznor collaborator and Oscar winner Atticus Ross – Pohlad creates a universe of sound that is rarely pleasant but always emotionally resonant. This, we can infer, is what it sounds like to be Wilson.

The portrait of Wilson in Love & Mercy is that of neither saint nor sinner. He has done wrong and been wronged. For every triumph, he has been exposed to a trial. While the people in his life have hurt him, he has endured and persevered with help of others. His successes have not inured him to the difficulties of life. He is a genius whose struggles have humbled him. He does not ask for pity or praise. All he needs is a little – well, it’s right there in the title.

See it? Yes.


Thomas Watson said...

I don't get the casting of John Cusack. Paul Dano should have played B.

Anthony Barstow said...

I think the idea was that Cusack could bring a certain world-weariness to the role that Dano does not have, but I would have been intrigued to see a version in which they aged Dano up to play the older Wilson as well.