14 June 2015 | StevePulaski
A film about the two things we're constantly bound by
It's no secret that with the plethora of biopics we get every year, there is a formula that many of them follow. Just last year, we got to see the stories of a wayward soul who ventured out on a soul-cleansing journey through the mountains, a computer genius who cracked a presumably unbreakable code during war times, one of the deadliest snipers in American history, and one of funk's greatest musicians told on film. Bill Pohland's "Love & Mercy," concerning the life of Beach Boys singer Brian Wilson, is bound to be written off by some as another interchangeable biopic, but if you've seen so much as a trailer for this film, you know this is something deeper, richer, and more complex than formula could ever begin to handle.
"Love & Mercy" focuses on two times pieced together, as Pohland and the writing team of Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman segway between the "past" Brian Wilson, played by Paul Dano, and the "future" Brian Wilson, played by John Cusack, never telling us exactly where the present lies. We follow Wilson during his rise with his brothers and friends to make The Beach Boys one of America's most successful boy bands in the 1960's. Despite initial success with The Beach Boys, following a severe panic attack, Wilson resigns from the band to focus on writing back home in California. He's convinced he has found the formula for "the greatest rock album ever," experimenting with a plethora of different melodies, instruments, and lyrics to create something one can not only hear and enjoy, but feel.
While undergoing this arduous process, Wilson is met with little vocal support. He receives the casual head nods from most of his bandmates, with the exception of Michael Love (Jake Abel), who constantly criticizes his creative decisions, and his father, who is still bitter after being fired by his own son. While focusing on this, we frequently jump into Brian's life in the future, where he is placed under the care of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti in another brutal but compelling role), who over-medicates and physically and mentally abuses him. Brian winds up meeting and falling for a Cadillac saleswoman named Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who constantly wants to be with him but finds Dr. Landy to be a smothering force preventing their connection from growing.
Pohland's experimental structure for "Love & Mercy" is nothing shy of remarkable, but the fact that it doesn't make the film feel off balance or tonally uneven is a total cinematic anomaly. While frequently weaving through different time periods seems ripe for complete chaos for a film trying to keep a consistent tone, "Love & Mercy" handles the challenge beautifully, humanizing Brian regardless of his age and working to find the core idea in each scene.
I've long asserted that Paul Dano is one of the finest actors in cinema today and "Love & Mercy" is another link in his ever-growing chain of terrific performances. Similar to his role in "Prisoners," Dano must remain relatively expressionless and look as if nothing is occurring inside his head, when really, there is too much going on in his head to accurately communicate. Dano, once again, blindsides the audience by taking a role that seems too facile to carry a film and making it a fleshed out, thoroughly impressive performance. John Cusack also delivers a role much like Dano, channeling his kind of emptiness so well that it's like watching two actors in different time periods of their life playing a character in different time periods of his own life. The result is a mesmerizing, surreal experience.
"Love & Mercy"'s vignette-style structure examines the heartbreak, the joy, the contentment, and the unmatched physical and mental pressure of Brian in a remarkably tender way. Robert Yeoman's cinematography also paints a picture that, while littered with nostalgia in look, costume design, and general vibes, captures Brian's hectic environment so affectionately that it becomes strangely beautiful. Through all of Brian's madness, his unpredictable panic attacks, episodes of rage, and the contemptuous relationship with his father, Pohland searches to find attributes of Brian to showcase in a way that's impacting.
Calling "Love & Mercy" a "mesmerizing, surreal experience" is an appropriate, if ostensibly exaggerating, summation. Similar to how Brian can't always communicate the beauty behind the sound of his music, I can't quite put my finger on what works with this film and in what manner. This film, however, snuck up on me in a way that was remarkably subtle but lasting and, even though it's been several days since I've seen it, the effect remains strong in a way that only enhances the film's compelling and unique aura.