Lionsgate was a pioneering label for brooding dramas, compelling imports and insightful nonfiction until it partnered with Tyler Perry, Jigsaw, and a certain YA book series. Miramax was the flagship of envelope-pushing American indies until the Weinsteins became better known for re-cutting films than for supporting filmmakers. Focus Features was the home of young early-aughts visionaries like Sofia Coppola, Michel Gondry and Joe Wright until CEO James Schamus was ousted to “broaden its portfolio.”
As indie distributors and studio subsidiaries refocus their efforts towards studio-sized earnings, their previously coherent brand identities as vessels of imaginative filmmaking quickly fade out. Since the indie boom of the ‘90s gave way to the ‘00’s bottom lines, it’s been increasingly difficult and frustrating to rely on name distributors to continually devote their efforts toward risky films.
All of which makes it all the more incredible that A24 has made itself into a distributor dedicated to anything but convention – and, at that, has assembled a slate of films defined by a certain amount of risk and subversion. With its 2013 slate – which included Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, Coppola’s The Bling Ring, Sally Potter’s Ginger and Rosa and James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now – A24’s first year was (intentionally or not) focused on films that produced a dark, incisive and more complex vision of youth than can be found elsewhere.
But A24’s 2014 films have provided something even more needed in the current cinematic landscape: central performances that openly defy cinematic convention and expectation.
I’m not only talking here about acclaimed performances, an area in which specialty distributors have enjoyed continued exposure. Rather, these are performances that manifest a change in our consideration of the performer. A24’s two most recent releases, David Michôd’s The Rover and Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child, allow us to rethink a Twilight heartthrob as a serious thespian (following a budding friendship with David Cronenberg) and consider a web star and sitcom walk-on a leading lady, respectively. Our understanding of Robert Pattinson and Jenny Slate as onscreen performers will change or evolve as a result of these films.
But it’s A24’s three releases from earlier this year that more thoroughly challenge both our idea of the performer and our notions of what cinematic performance can and should do.
Enemy finds Jake Gyllenhaal collaborating with Denis Villeneuve for a second consecutive outing after his fine performance in the so-so Prisoners. This Jose Saramago-adapted story of an introverted professor who finds out he has a double in the form of a confident aspiring actor allows for an abstract and at-times shocking meditation on identity in the face of life’s banal cycles and drastic changes. A tense, brooding, and decidedly discomfiting film, Enemy is more reminiscent of the Gyllenhaal of Donnie Darko than the movie star he subsequently became. Yet it’s also far more grown up than Gyllenhaal’s otherwise impressive initial outings.
Unafraid of ambiguity and entrusting of its audience to deliberate over its array of idiosyncratic set pieces, Enemy’s style and narrative seem at first to produce a contradiction: the film’s crux centers on the protagonist’s literal confrontation with himself, yet the film materializes no definitive takeaways in terms of what this confrontation produces, preferring instead to give audiences a piercing, peculiar final image meant to haunt any discussions of the film.
One cannot perform ambiguity, or act out great big themes, and therein lies the brilliance of Gyllenhaal’s decisions on display here. His dual performance is remarkably (yet necessarily) specific – he imbues each character not simply with unique characteristics, but embodies them with separate worldviews – yet he is also inscrutable, his interior life assumed but notably distanced from the viewer. The result mirrors his characters’ detachment, confusion and uncertainty, but more importantly, it allows Enemy to function as the abstract fable it is.
One seemingly rote scene involves Gyllenhaal’s conversation with his mother played by Isabella Rossellini. This brief scene subtly opens up the possibility that (for the first and perhaps only time in the film) either version of Gyllenhaal could be present onscreen given the select information provided in their exchange. Gyllenhaal no doubt had an idea of which character he was portraying in this moment, but that is absent in our experience, with the necessary ambiguity this scene needs to provide the film. With Enemy, Villeneuve has taken a movie star and carefully stripped away his identity and presence by bifurcating him.
Even more radical is Scarlett Johansson’s role as an alien predator in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. As with Enemy, Under the Skin’s plot discards narrative trappings (conventions about closure and character motive, respectively) in favor of exploring ideas of depth through a body onscreen.
Johansson’s alien’s task is apparently to seduce young men roaming the streets of Scotland for some nefarious organ-farming project, but is eventually taken in (and victimized) by the possibilities within human encounters. As with The Man Who Fell to Earth (a noted inspiration and itself a game-changer for the ever-cinematic David Bowie), Under the Skin uses the familiar subjectivity of the sci-fi alien as a lens through which we can see humanity differently – in Glazer’s case, the trope offers an opportunity for an exegesis on what it means to be embodied as a woman in everyday terms.
In this respect, the film as much a document of male social rituals as it is a meditation on male power. Glazer and his crew carefully devised a way for Johansson to drive through Glasgow without cameras and other production devices immediately present and visible. Many of the men she picks up or questions did not at the time of filming know they were being filmed, or even know that they were speaking to Johansson, here (like her character) donning a black wig. She, in these scenes, is performing as an actress in the presence of recording devices. The men, during these moments, are performing as men in the presence of her.
When the men are seduced by Johansson’s alien – in an otherwordly blank space in which they are unknowingly trapped as they walk towards her disrobing figure – it both resembles and neatly summarizes Johansson’s star image within celebrity culture: she is an object, a body, to be pursued, consumed and looked at. Under the Skin turns the tables and asks about the presence and meanings of that body in a society in which the game of sex so often takes the form of predation.
As with Gyllenhaal in Enemy, Johansson’s star image in Under the Skin is ever-present yet radically dissociated from the audience. We do not watch her. We watch others watch her, or watch her watch herself.
Tom Hardy’s performance in Steven Knight’s Locke seems at first to follow an indie standard: the standalone chamber drama. But unlike Buried or, erm, Phone Booth, Locke is more of a character study than a thriller. A construction foreman’s life falls apart as he drives from Manchester to London in order to witness the product of one night of infidelity being born, leaving his job and home in shambles. The film has more of an immediate narrative structure than Enemy or Under the Skin (and it is, in this respect, more engrossing than distancing), but Locke’s take on the lead performance is critical and inventive all the same.
Hardy is a performer arguably best known for his mouth, both in terms of the way he uses it to construct a performance and the sounds that come out of it – think his mustachioed brogue in Bronson, his guttural yet reserved brashness in Warrior, or his mouth’s barely coherent masking in The Dark Knight Rises. For Locke, Hardy opts for a velvety Welsh accent that gives him an assumed softness, goodwill and wisdom. This aspect is apparently something his supporting characters have keyed in on; within the endless caravan of phone calls, characters repeatedly tell him that he’s a good man and his infidelity and job-abandonment are all unlike him. Yet Locke uses that nice Welsh tone to full force, convincing both himself and others that he is doing the right thing given the circumstances.
But eventually Locke’s façade gives way. He attempts to convince his wife that they’ll work this dark chapter out with the same pragmatic warmness he gives a fellow foreman when advising him on the job. During one conversation, Locke assures his caller that he is indeed being himself, and the following phone call he fleetingly admits he doesn’t know who he is. Rather than a straightforward one-man show about an awful car ride, Locke instead suggests that its protagonist’s central performance is finally and dramatically falling apart. The character that the film studies is the one Locke has, for years, fashioned for himself.
Locke endures the failure of performing what one thinks oneself to be. By the end of the film, the deceptively simple title presents more of a question about its subject than a clarifying declaration.
These three films do not only present solid performances by well-known actors. Nor do they merely offer breaks from Gyllenhaal, Johansson, and Hardy’s traditional roles. Enemy, Under the Skin, and Locke are investigations of the nature of human performance both on and off-screen, and together constitute a formidable challenge to the limited terms under which we so often conceive cinematic performances to be.