Yorgos Lanthimos makes inspired choices when it comes to his acting collaborators. He’s given well-established players, such as Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, some of their most challenging and surprising roles to date. He also pulled off the brilliant move of casting Colin Farrell as a schlubby dude unable to get a date in The Lobster — a role that is as against type as possible. The filmmaker knows how to work with his actors’ strengths and how to subvert our expectations of them, often resulting in standout performances.
This makes it all the more fitting that for the lead role in his latest project, the ingenious and unsettling short film Nimic, Lanthimos looked to Matt Dillon.
Dillon has never fit into a neat box and hasn’t received the recognition he deserves, even while working steadily for over 30 years. In Nimic, he plays a cellist who has a strange encounter with a woman in the subway and finds that a seemingly innocuous remark has startling ramifications on his life and family relationships. No spoilers here (a film this dizzying is difficult to spoil when it’s about feeling more than plot) but Dillon’s character becomes confronted by the possibility that he doesn’t fit into his own life the way he once believed.
This is a film and a performance that plays with ideas of manipulation, individuality, and the deconstruction of a persona. Dillon is first tasked with portraying a regular joe, a guy who eats the same thing for breakfast every day, rides the subway to work, and sometimes stops to buy his wife flowers on the way home. Then, in only 12 minutes, Lanthimos presents a thoroughly unnerving narrative about how events beyond your control can worm their way into your life and tear down what you think you understand.
One can imagine that approaching a work such as this can be daunting, but it comes across as being perfectly suited for Dillon, an actor adept at molding himself to different roles. He has portrayed characters wise beyond their years and characters who are dumb as rocks; he’s been an effortlessly charming boy-next-door and a representation of the lowest depths of morality. And he’s consistently nailed all of it.
In the 1980s, Dillon rose to fame as a teen star in a number of coming-of-age films. His good looks understandably helped him land roles in films like Little Darlings (1980), in which he plays the object of desire for a teen girl intent on losing her virginity at camp. The most notable film made during his teen years is Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders (1983). The adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s beloved novel stars Dillon as Dally, the leader of a gang of greasers. He makes a hell of a nogoodnik, playing up Dally’s cockiness — he’s downright slimy when hitting on two girls at a drive-in theater — but he also reveals something tender in the character.
One of Dillon’s greatest early roles is in Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy (1989). Dillon stars as Bob, the leader of a small crew of drug addicts meandering through the Pacific Northwest in the 1970s. The movie can be considered a spiritual precursor to My Own Private Idaho—characters lost in the worlds they inhabit, desperately striving for a connection to someone or something, wishing they had an inner compass pointing north to give them a sense of direction. Dillon’s Bob is skilled at adopting personas to try to convince people he’s in a better place with his addiction than he really is. He can come across as self-assured and charming, but he carries the desperation of someone shackled to his addiction, whose good moments can only last so long before he becomes someone who would do anything for a fix.
What Drugstore Cowboy captures so deftly is that Dillon, while capable of projecting undeniable confidence and possessing swagger with just a pinch of smarm, has a soulfulness that makes the audience want to save him. While the 1990s saw no shortage of handsome, bad boy heartthrobs, Dillon can’t fit into any established mold. His appeal is not quite the same as the Johnny Depp type whose persona is built around being helplessly odd. Nor is it a babyfaced Leonardo Dicaprio kind of endearment — even in his earliest roles, Dillon had a maturity that prevented this. His appeal is the heartbreak of a homecoming king who feels too deeply for his own good. He’s so endlessly watchable because he’s as classically handsome as they come and yet also an eternal outsider.
One of the most interesting years in Dillon’s career was 1998, when he starred in the erotic thriller Wild Things and the Farrelly brothers comedy There’s Something About Mary. In the former, he channels his bad-boy charms and good looks into his portrayal of Sam Lombardo, a high school guidance counselor who gets a little too friendly with two of his students — what could go wrong? His performance often hinges on questions of whether we can believe what he’s saying. It’s perfectly tailored to Dillon’s skills because he’s so adept at being likable even when he’s not trustworthy.
He further bends the limits of his own charms in There’s Something About Mary by playing one of cinema’s great doofuses: Pat Healy, a private detective hired by Ben Stiller’s Ted to track down old flame Mary (Cameron Diaz). Pat decides to woo Mary himself, and he becomes a gloriously slimy villain, so clearly out of his depth when asked to utilize more than a single brain cell. He’s also hilarious in the role, with perfect comedic timing and a keen awareness of his own physicality.
No assessment of Dillon’s career would be complete without discussing Crash. His performance in one of the most maligned Best Picture winners of all time is inevitably tied to the film itself, but Dillon’s work, which earned him an Oscar nomination, stands on its own. He becomes easily detestable as a reprehensible LAPD cop, but his nuanced performance invokes the film’s idea that someone can act abhorrently but have the capacity for care. His is a character we can, and certainly should, critique with a sense of perspective afforded to us in the years since 2004. But Dillon’s commitment to the role and the way he handles tensions in his character are laudable.
Dillon’s commitment to his characters was exemplified in what is his strongest performance thus far in his career: his portrayal of the eponymous serial killer in Lars von Trier’s incendiary and impeccable The House That Jack Built. For Jack, von Trier takes the skills Dillon has been sharpening for three decades, deconstructs them, and builds the role around the pieces. Dillon’s skill at playing hurt characters with tenderness is on display in the way Jack tries to package himself as being misunderstood. But opposite Jack is Verge (Bruno Ganz), an interlocutor who takes every opportunity to undercut Jack’s delusions of sophistication.
Dillon plays Jack just dumb enough to never be enticing, even when he is so sure of himself. While the misunderstood bad boy with a hard shell is a character type that certainly has a place in film, The House That Jack Built subverts this by undermining many of Dillon’s qualities that other films have capitalized on. He’s not a tragic antihero we want to understand better, he’s a vile dunce we rightfully abhor.
Like The House That Jack Built, what Nimic gets so right about Dillon as an actor is his undefinability; he can be anything to anyone. By connecting his talents as an actor to the film’s exploration of identity and relationship dynamics, Lanthimos asks us to question how much we can really know anyone, and ultimately, how much can we really know ourselves?
Dillon’s collaborative efforts with von Trier and now Lanthimos are an indication that directors skilled at challenging audiences are taking notice of his talents. Dillon has long displayed that he’s adept at embodying contradictions. He can adapt to being enchanting or repulsive, commanding or overwhelmed, misunderstood or simply lacking depth. Some of his most recent films demonstrate that he’s seeking roles that ask him to rise to the occasion as an actor, and rise he has.