“Love and Mercy”
First time director Bill Pohlad has crafted a truly original, breathtaking biopic with Love and Mercy. Taking from filmmakers such as Lynch, Kubrick, and Malick, Pohlad has carefully constructed a frail vision of potential, greatness, delusion, destruction, hopelessness, and, finally, redemption. A vision that if you were to touch the constructs, it’d cease to exist, like a dream, falling away, piece by piece, into a lost memory.
I wonder if Pohlad was a big Beach Boys fan or a faithful follower of Brian Wilson’s discography. His unconventional use of visual and storytelling aesthetic makes the whole operation seem to be more than just a directing job, but a labor of love. It has the feel of a more personal experience. From the documentary-like opening dialogue from Paul Dano–who plays the role of a younger Wilson beautifully–you can tell this isn’t your average musical biopic. Unlike some other films, Love and Mercy isn’t necessarily about the musical legacy of Brian Wilson. The actual creation and production of the Beach Boys’ hits are only a quarter of the film, the rest being about the devastating mental struggle Wilson had to undergo throughout his life. It’s not as much a musical biopic than it is just a biopic, it just happens to be about one of the greatest influences of the musical world.
Love and Mercy takes place within two periods in Wilson’s life: One is with a younger Wilson played by Dano where it mostly chronicles his development of the Beach Boys album “Pet Sounds” and the fleeting of hope that will consume him later in life; the other is an older Wilson played by John Cusack where it chronicles his life after his falling out and the struggles he has to face due to the difficulties within his past. It flips between both these timelines quite frequently–not unlike the film The Tree of Life, which was directed by Malick–but it never feels strained or theatrical, the transitions are always natural, delving into the past as if we are watching Wilson delve into it himself, trying desperately to hold on to the memory.
Dano is captivating as ever in the role of the younger Wilson, showing conviction that I haven’t seen from him since his masterful, underappreciated turn in There Will Be Blood. Dano needs to really show a change in the persona of this man, a slowly deafening understanding of the world around him. In many instances, a filmmaker will make a film about the struggles of showbusiness and they’ll make the struggles to be all about the making of the craft. The craft shouldn’t be what torments these characters, that should be the one slim sense of hope, the one place to find cheerful abandon. Wilson is a man who is slowly becoming more and more invested, or obsessed, with his work. This isn’t due to the agony it causes him because it doesn’t cause him agony, it’s’ the only instance where he finds solace, it’s due to the rest of the world being an empty, confusing wasteland for him. One scene where he snaps due to the sound of clattering silverware and plates at the dinner table is devastating due to this.
John Cusack plays the role of the older Wilson, giving his finest performance to date. While some actors may have played the role off as a cracked, destroyed human being, Cusack gives the role a sense of dignity, managing to find the perfect balance between vulnerable depressive and a man in search of a purpose. Cusack doesn’t have the same job as Dano, he does not need as much emphasis on the gradual change of his character, at that point he is already established. The film skips over Wilson’s several years in bed, glossing over the point in which all hope was lost. Hope came to Wilson in the form of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) who helped get him out of his house and back into shape. This love soon turned sour, unfortunately, with Landy’s love soon becoming more controlling than caring, falsely diagnosing him with paranoid schizophrenia and overdrugging him in the process in order to keep Wilson in his care. Giamatti plays his role with no remorse, giving us a performance of intense hatred and greed. An unnerving scene where he verbally abuses Wilson for eating too early is something that will be difficult for some to shake. Elizabeth Banks is introduced at the start of the film. She plays car salesman Melinda Ledbetter: Wilson’s savior. I have never thought of Banks as being a particularly “great” actress, but I couldn’t keep my eyes off of her in this. She was captivating. She and Wilson develop a relationship which is tested by both the mental state that Wilson is in and the brutal control of Landy. A scene near the end where Landy and Ledbetter are basically performing an “angel and devil on either shoulder” routine is tormenting.
The final scenes of Love and Mercy are some of the most satisfying you will see this year. They are daring, unwieldy, fascinating, and emotionally wrenching. One particular scene reminds us of the final sequence in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Love and Mercy is a relentless and devastating portrayal of an American icon, a story that I did not know too well myself.
When Wilson first comes up with the lyrics for “God Only Knows”, he plays the song for his dad. His dad, who is a very large aspect to Wilson’s mental instability due to his controlling behavior, which is not unlike Landy’s, claims that it sounds too wishy-washy. One section of the song goes, “If you should ever leave me/Well life would still go on, believe me/The world could show nothing to me/So what good would living do me.” I do not believe these are wishy washy, but evidence towards Wilson’s evanescent perspective on life and how life will always go on, but for what purpose. He looks for that purpose throughout his life, first in his controlling, distant father, then in Dr. Landy, and finally he finds Melinda who provides him with a truly significant source of hope. At one point, Wilson’s fellow bandmembers criticize his lyrics by saying they don’t make sense. Music is an art form and art is very subjective. I think it just shows how Wilson writes from the heart in a way that can’t be described in a simple context. Who are they to say the lyrics don’t make sense. That is the beauty of art; one can say a painting is just a bunch of paints flung at a canvas and another can say it’s something more.