Ordinary Brilliance and Self-Destruction
There’s a great scene about halfway through Ed Harris’ fiercely unsentimental and brutally beautiful Pollock that sums up the painter’s lifelong emotional storm. Relaxing in his suburban Long Island home, listening to lazy jazz while holding a cold beer in his right hand, Pollock (played by Harris) tells his wife and fellow artist Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden) that he wants a child. When she says no, he explodes spectacularly in a bipolar flash, smashing the bottle on the floor, shouting and seething in red-faced anger. In the time it takes to flip on a light switch, his entire demeanor has changed completely, a transformation as shocking to the audience as it is dispiriting to Krasner.
This is the tragedy and romanticized allure of Jackson Pollock, the man: he grew physically, he grew creatively, but he never grew up emotionally. Harris’ double-duty here, as first-time director and finely-tuned actor, captures that stunted life in all its ugliness, just as he captures Pollock’s inventive and influential drip method in all its profound simplicity.
While the film is shot from a screenplay co-written by Barbara Turner and Susan J. Emshwiller, it’s been Harris’ baby for more than a decade, and his fingerprints are all over every creative decision, even those not directly credited to him. It focuses on ten years of Pollock’s life, chronicling his rise from obscure New York painter to omnipresent modern art luminary and, ultimately, his end as a bitter, lonely alcoholic. To the writers’ credit, the script avoids the numerous cliches typically associated with movies about artists: there’s little effort to wrap up Pollock’s wild oscillations with tidy explanations or to psychoanalyze his motives. Instead, Pollock observes its subject, presenting him more or less objectively. It’s this cool, almost journalistic approach that keeps the movie fresh and its characters’ emotional struggles realistic and involving.
Harris directs shrewdly and economically—nothing on screen is gratuitous. Of particular note are his intelligent choices during scenes where we see the artist painting, the only time he is ever entirely comfortable and in his element. Harris nails it; the camera dips and weaves unobtrusively, without flash but not without personality, and catches the scattershot purity of Pollock’s drip method in a way that seems entirely organic, a kind of planned arbitrariness, much like the paintings themselves.
His surprising maturity as a first-time director is the perfect complement to his not-at-all-surprising maturity as a veteran actor. He has built a solid career by doing his work and keeping all external celebrity noise quiet. This is one of his finest performances, an exercise in range that demands both understatement and fireworks, and throughout the film, he delivers on both ends.
It’s right that the Academy had the good sense to reward him with a Best Actor nomination. Harris plays Jackson Pollock the way he would play a stock clerk in your local supermarket: as a normal person with some extraordinary personality traits and talents, because Harris understands that’s pretty much what most people are actually like. His Pollock is a guy with a knack for painting that is (over)matched only by his incredibly self-destructive knack for drinking and worrying, a “man’s man” who is destined to tear down everything he builds. Pollock is feral, sweet, dangerous, innocent, bright, and thickheaded beyond belief, often all at the same time. A lesser actor might get lost in the mythology of the man, overdoing the alcoholism or the wounded, distanced elements of Pollock’s personality. Harris shrewdly avoids caricature, condemnation, and hero-worship.
Marcia Gay Harden rivals his performance with her own remarkable turn as Krasner. Harden understands that Krasner was Pollock’s backbone; his rapid disintegration after she leaves him to his drinking and his mistress stands as irrefutable proof of that. The actor also understands that Krasner was smarter, more responsible, and far more deserving of our sympathy, and that Pollock owed much of his success to her tireless efforts and shameless boosting. Like Harris, Harden wastes no time getting at Krasner’s humanity, and never stoops to martyring the character to get us feeling sorry for her.
There would be no room for that here anyway. Pollock is, above all, a film about people’s insecurities, regardless of social stature, and how those insecurities can completely derail lives. There’s no space for martyrs in a story like that, just for the complex shadings of everyday toilers, even the ones whose toils revolutionize the art world and profoundly imprint pop culture. Jackson Pollock was an abundantly conflicted and talented man, stuck in neutral when it came to emotional development—Peter Pan without the pretty ending or the pixie dust. Ed Harris’ movie is every bit as vivid and textured as its subject’s finest work.