Saturday, January 11, 2014

White Trash Baroque

Paul Dano plays a man with developmental disabilities in Prisoners, a thriller that came out this fall, and at first look the performance seems like prototypical caricature.  Silent, blank-faced and pathetic, Dano's Alex Jones skulks through his scenes as a predator who does not seem to understand his own debauched status, or sins.  He just is what he is:  pure nameless feeble-minded evil.  But the movie, and Dano, do not allow us a lot of comfort in our judgment of Alex as that sort of freak.  In fact, by the end of the movie, no one is exactly who they and we think they are, and yet nothing really has changed. 

Ostensibly, the movie is about two little girls being abducted on Thanksgiving in a suburban working-class neighborhood in Pennsylvania.  There's a rainy, grim fairy-tale focus from the start, and the director, Denis Villeneuve, has a beautiful fetish for grit and pallor.  The center of his focus is a beaten-up RV that seems to absorb the two girls.  Next up is the frantic chase to find them, headed by Jake Gyllenhaal as a police detective who is enjoying a solitary Thanksgiving feast at a local Chinese restaurant when he gets the call.  The drab world Prisoners depicts has a sort of an inner-growl to it, as Villeneuve fills the screen with busted walls, rotten wood, and lots and lots of rain.  Hugh Jackson, as one of the dads, carries the movie as his emotions transform from horror and grief into torture and sadism.  It turns out the main suspect is Dano's Alex, that no-good weirdo from down the street who once he is arrested doesn't even have enough sense to answer polygraph questions to the point they can measure the depths of his deception.  According to the detective, Alex has the "IQ of a 10 year old."  This lack of intelligence and morals only increases Jackman's father's anger and eventually he kidnaps Alex and tortures him in an abandoned apartment. 

The paralleling of intelligence with morals is a toxic leftover of course of old-school early 20th Century eugenics and phrenology, and the movie depends on that paradigm in order to place Alex in the context of plot and atmosphere, but somehow Dano's diligent dedication to the part renders Alex's identity as something more than just genetics gone "horribly and predictably wrong" (that's a quote from Henry H. Goddard's 1912 eugenics masterpiece, The Kallikak Family: a Study in the Heredity of Feeble-mindedness).  Alex through the course of the movie's wrenching, white-trash-baroque plot becomes a sort of anti-hero that isn't heroic but has somehow survived a secret holocaust horribly scathed and yet supernaturally real. 

Dano does not escape the stereotype as much as he bores through it.  His face is both Joan-of-Arc-spiritual and stilted, silent-movie delirious.  He seems to drift through the interstices of thought and place, a ghost that isn't involved in his own story and yet has to live through it, without any resources or access to relief.  Somehow Dano makes that helplessness and hopelessness into a sort of mantra that we can hook into, without turning Alex Jones into a demon or an angel or a "normal guy" underneath it all. 

Alex Jones is what he is, somehow, and I don't really know what that is outside of being human.  Dano gives us a human being that has none of the constraints and controls of the usual movie performance.  He's making performance-art inside the chilly, horror-movie contexts of Prisoners.  And it's a total compliment to Villeneuve that the movie's moral compass is more of a spider-web than a navigational tool.  The whole piece seems to take its marching orders from Dano's blank, beautiful, unnerving face.