* * * * 1/2

US cinema is having a rich year, and the talent behind it is fresh. With only two months to go, 2018’s three best American films – Hereditary, A Star Is Born and Wildlife – are all directorial debut feature films. Seemingly disparate, they share some unexpected connections (the unexciting one being that they’re all, culturally, very, very white.) They seem to be rooted in their own genre lanes – horror, romance and family drama – but there is thematic connective tissue, with particular overlap between Hereditary and Wildlife, two films about the effect of family disturbance upon a teenage boy.

In this case, the boy is Joe, played with supreme sensitivity by Ed Oxenbould. It’s the early 1960s in Montana, which may as well be the 1950s or earlier, and Joe’s parents are struggling. Dad Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) is one of those men, littered throughout American literature (the film is based on the book by Richard Ford) for whom the American foundation is proving to be deceptive, if not an outright lie. Joe’s mother Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) is, likewise, stuck in a construction – American mid-century marriage – that could not seem more like a prison. When Joe loses his job, both he and Jeanette take single, seemingly selfish actions, one following the other, like dominoes; the enormity of their effect can only be gauged on Joe’s face, in silent close-up, for it is only he who must absorb every single ripple of their actions through no impulse of his own.

Debutant director Paul Dano exudes incredible assurance. The film is flawlessly conceived. All of the performances are tremendous (Mulligan, with the lion’s share of the movie’s dialogue and vulnerable moments, is staggeringly good), the cinematography is superb, the score precise and profound. Above all, the storytelling is intellectually rigorous. Dano never abandons his young protagonist to the fireworks of his parents’ behaviour; Joe might say very little, but he is always there. Like a lot of American dramatic cinema and literature, Wildlife uses the disintegration of the mid-century American dream to remind us that the biggest impact of all is that of parents on their children, and that culpability begins at home.

Swiss Army Man


If you’ve seen the trailer to Swiss Army Man, you may want to save your money and skip the movie. The film has some deliriously beautiful moments, but unfortunately, they’re given away for free in that ad – beautifully, hugely, with full score, intact in the dark. All the best moments are shown – so what are you left plunking down twenty bucks to see?

As it turns out: not much. Every single trick is in that trailer. The reminder of the film is an often straining re-hash of Castaway via Weekend At Bernie’s, Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia and almost anything by Michel Gondry. It may be a call to arms for same-sex marriage, it may be a call to arms for mental health funding: it’s hard to tell, as the central metaphor of the film is very, very muddied. Outside of some brief but extremely engaging snatches of dynamic cinema (that are all in that trailer), the rest of the film is often boring, consisting of long stretches of pontificating on the nature of love, loneliness and longing, delivered by Paul Dano to a corpse played by Daniel Radcliffe. Dano’s shipwrecked; Radcliffe is a corpse who may be the key to Dano’s salvation – not just physical, but emotional. It’s not a stretch for Dano; it’s a huge stretch for Radcliffe, as it would be for any actor, playing a corpse that gets manipulated as, yes, a Swiss Army Knife.

There are about three amazing minutes in this film. The fact that they are almost entirely given away in the trailer is not only annoying, it’s perverse. Directors Daniel Scheinert and Dan Kwan have made some intriguing shorts and music videos; this feels like an awesome couple of those padded out to a very long 97 minutes.

Love and Mercy


Paul Dano gives an astonishingly rich, award worthy performance as the younger, prime-of-creative-best Brian Wilson in Love and Mercy, a major film which easily takes a seat not only amongst the very best music biopics, but amongst those rare films that are able to dramatize the creative process. Essentially, the film boils down to the recording sessions for Wilson’s (with his Beach Boys) seminal Pet Sounds album, and the many scenes set inside that studio feel as authentic and inspiring as you could hope for.

Dano has been quietly achieving greatness for about a decade now. Completely invisible outside of his work (when was the last time you saw him in a gossip column, on a red carpet, or misbehaving on Twitter?), he has held his own with Daniel Day Lewis and Toni Colette, among others, and picks and chooses his roles carefully – so much so that they seem to pick him. Lord knows no-one casts him because he sells cinema tickets, so there’s something else afoot – he’s the real freakin’ deal. And despite his superb body of solid work, none of his previous roles compare to his Brian Wilson, a performance he has crafted so carefully that the real Brian Wilson, viewed on YouTube, may seem less authentic than Dano’s portrayal.

John Cusack plays Wilson later in life, during the period when he was shockingly imprisoned by a psychiatrist, Eugene Landy, who had assumed legal guardianship of him based on a dodgy diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia (Wilson certainly had / has serious mental illness, but not necessarily that diagnosed by Landy). Cusack is also excellent – perhaps at career best – but the older Wilson is a side story. The real juice is the portrait of an artist as a young man.

Bill Pohlad, an enormously tasteful producer (12 Years A Slave, The Tree Of Life, Into The Wild) directed one film in 1990, but Love and Mercy is really his announcement of intent, and man, he’s worth backing. The film was was made with limited resources but achieves epic emotional grandeur. Imagine a Paul McCartney or John Lennon biopic done right – that’s what this film is for Wilson. The fact that it’s done on an independent scale reflects the strange career and life arc of its subject. Wilson is McCartney and Lennon – but with a severe illness, which sidelined him from big budget, mainstream, red carpet acclaim. The casting of Dano – a true artist rather than a “movie star” – becomes ever more prescient.

Love and Mercy deeply investigates the relationship of creativity and mental illness, the obsessive need for artists to please their fathers (and father figures), and, indeed, what it means to be a creative person. Wilson’s father, Murry (excellently portrayed by Bill Camp) is reflected and refracted by his carer / imprisoner Dr. Landy, who employs the most basic methods of fatherly foolishness – tough love, a slap then a kiss – in an extremely deliberate methodology of control. Landy was a scam artist, an emotional bully who got his comeuppance, and is played to the hilt by Paul Giamatti, an actor who constantly goes to the edge of taste, and somehow never falls off into tastelessness. He and Dano deserve each other – they are both supremely brave artists.

Laboured with a supporting role – connecting tissue, really – Elizabeth Banks rules. As Melinda Ledbetter, who met and fell in love with Wilson while he was under Landy’s control, she is never less than fully believable. Banks’ extreme beauty almost works against her (hello Charlize Theron, who has shaved her eyebrows, her head and her limbs to adjust our perceptions) but here, as an ex-model come Cadillac dealer, she’s found her role. Her quiet dignity, and growing strength, is extremely well modulated. Late in the film, she has a silent moment with Giamatti that is breath-taking. She won’t win awards for this, but she’ll win respect.

The last time I was so moved by a music biopic, or by a film about the art of creation, was Ray, but Ray feels very conventional against Love and Mercy, and that feels appropriate. Wilson is anything other than conventional. His art was – is – that of true tortured genius. Make a film of that! Pohlad has, and it’s fantastic. I can’t get it out of my mind. Love and Mercy joins Mommy and Mad Max: Fury Road as one of the great films of the first half of 2015.