Essential Film Performances - 2012 Edition Part Three

by PopMatters Staff

19 June 2012


Kirsten Dunst and more...

The Dark Side
Kirsten Dunst
(Lars Von Trier, 2011)

I’m convinced that Kirsten Dunst is the best actress of her generation and has been for many years. Still, the remarkable range she has shown throughout her career—in films spanning from Interview with a Vampire to Bring It On to Marie Antoinette—didn’t fully prepare me for the refined, mature and deeply soulful nuances that Dunst brings to the elegantly manic depressive character of Justine in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia. In a performance that plays like a piece of classical music (perhaps “Death and the Maiden”), Dunst navigates an extreme spectrum of highs and lows, uncovering the troubled mind of a young bride who must come to terms with impending doom. What power does the planet Melancholia have over Justine? To quote another Von Trier film, Dancer in the Dark, she’s “seen it all, there is no more to see”. Her burden seems to be bearing the knowledge of the world’s destruction before anyone else, and this knowledge (temporarily) unravels her.

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Director: Lars Von Trier

Before her premonitions are eventually be proven true, Justine is put through the wringer, ravaged by debilitating anxieties and depression. Following an intense, reptilian-eyed showdown with her caretaker sister, Justine, freed of the anxiety that once pummeled her into the ground, sets out to construct a “magic cave” shelter with her nephew in preparation for the last act’s planetary collision as her sister falls apart. Dunst swings her character’s arc into one of redemption, of strength, just as Earth is destroyed, without it ever being cliched or gooey. Justine’s nephew calls her “Auntie Steel Breaker”, a term that is never really explained, but I think that implies he sees her as being strong enough to break through steel, she is his hero. When he calls her this while she is in the throes of despair, laying paralyzed with grief, it is hard to listen to.However, by the film’s end, as the planet crumbles, Dunst reveals Justine’s solid core and earns that moniker as this once fragile creature shockingly becomes the story’s most grounded, sensible, strong voice.

No matter how flawed the heroines of Von Trier’s oeuvre may or may not be, each one of these women is expertly drawn by the performer and Von Trier. These are wholly original, daring and cinematic female characters. Whether you love him or hate him, he is still one of the only major working auteurs to consistently depict interesting, complicated women with such razor sharp edges and subtleties. Dunst’s prickly, coolly venomous portrayal of Justine is a work of vision and bravado that hints on even greater things to come. Bring it on, apocalypse. Matt Mazur

Life Support
Gary Farmer
Dead Man
(Jim Jarmusch, 1995)

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Dead Man

Director: Jim Jarmusch

He enters the screen grimacing and hovering as he attempts to remove a bullet from Johnny Depp.  With an abrupt, fierce disregard for white men, Nobody, as played by Gary Farmer becomes the spiritual healer and trusted sidekick in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. The gruff and decisive facade that Farmer gives our anti-hero, dubbed “Nobody”, is merely a shadow, an imitation. The stunning achievement of Farmer’s performance is how he slowly emerges as a big man with a soft heart. Farmer enters William Blake’s life to rescue him but it is he himself who needs rescuing.  Farmer beautifully shows the audience how Nobody is an outsider in his land. He roams alone and he struggles to find his identity amidst the ruins of his stolen sense of history.

And this is precisely what is so startling about Farmer’s performance: as a supporting player to the presence of Depp, you find it is Farmer’s journey that is equally as compelling, if not far more. Farmer’s performance carries an eccentric sense of loneliness. You can tell he has been on his own for a very long time and that is how he likes it. With limited dialogue and an intermittent presence on the screen, Farmer is able to give the mysterious Nobody such depth with his lived-in performance. Farmer, at the time of release of this film when his performance was receiving much deserved praise, revealed that he was able to draw on his own personal quest to find his Native American roots, which becomes apparent as the story unfolds. Farmer channels the dispossession that underlines Nobody’s existence into every hint of affection for William Blake. Farmer’s calm and reassuring presence does not deliver a happy ending.  The way Farmer maintains his distance and assumes his role as a guide to Blake so hauntingly tells us that he knows the best he can give this man is dignity in death. Farmer’s final farewell is as menacing as his entry. His expression portrays both grief and an innate understanding that the spirit of Blake can no longer be denied.  Kylie Little

Under the Radar
Vera Farmiga
Down to the Bone
(Debra Granik, 2005)

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Down to the Bone

Director: Debra Granik

Telling the story of a drug-addicted mother of two, maybe-wife of one, and lover of another, Down to the Bone feels like a movie we’ve seen a thousand times before. First she’s addicted. Then she goes to rehab. Then she relapses. Then, well, you get it. So what pulls Down to the Bone up from the dreck of all the other indie druggie movies? Simply put, one element: Vera Farmiga in a performance of such guts and vision that it justly won her the Los Angeles Film Critics’ Best Actress prize.

Unlike many of her peers, Farmiga’s take on a highly-functioning junkie is one of subtle grace. Watching Irene is like watching the world’s most exhausted thief pull a job night after night. She knows she’s doing something wrong—a trigger pulled by the near-constant presence of her children—but she can’t stop. Watching Irene is like watching the world’s most exhausted thief pull a job over and over again, night after night.., That brand of cringe-inducing self-awareness makes the viewer feel like she feels like she’ll get caught eventually, whether by her boss, sponsor, or the police, and she’s just stealing as much time as she can before it happens. You keep waiting for the breakdown. The emotional outburst all Hollywood drug addicts reach after the worst has happened—usually running out of drugs. Yet Farmiga refuses to go there. She doesn’t want to take the easy way out, even if the story surrounding her (perhaps) does in certain respects. Instead, Farmiga crafts an indelible and original model of addiction for generations of her peers to imitate—the silent sufferer.

Some may dismiss the movie (as most mainstream audiences did) and Farmiga because both are so laid back, too-natural almost. It’s fitting and, when you think about it, fierce. She makes Down to the Bone worth looking up. Matt Mazur and Ben Travers

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