Love & Mercy is based on the troubled life of The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. The film tells parallel narratives of Wilson’s life with Paul Dano (Looper, There Will Be Blood) playing the younger, 1960s era Brian Wilson and John Cusack (High Fidelity, Grosse Point Blank) playing the older, 1980s era Brian Wilson. Love & Mercy is directed by Bill Pohland, only his second feature directing project. Pohland is most notable as a producer of films such as Wild, 12 Years a Slave, The Tree of Life and many others. Along with Dano and Cusack, the film also has supporting performances from Elizabeth Banks (Pitch Perfect, The Hunger Games) and Paul Giamatti (Sideways, American Splendor). Love & Mercy is an intimate, highly personal portrait of Wilson that is cerebral, experimental, and very effective as an exploration of mental illness, creative genius, and, in Wilson’s case, where those two things intersect.
The two threads of Wilson’s life covered in the film are intercut and juxtaposed with each other. The earlier thread takes Wilson through his creation of the album Pet Sounds, a significant departure in style from The Beach Boys’ earlier albums and a source of conflict between Brian and the other members of The Beach Boys, in particular Mike Love played capably here by Jake Abel (Percy Jackson Series, The Lovely Bones). This part of the film also explores Brian Wilson’s experimentation with psychotropic drugs and his subsequent descent into mental illness. The later thread picks up Wilson’s life at a time when he is just meeting Banks’ character, Melinda Ledbetter and is under the care and control of Paul Giamatti’s character, psychiatrist Ed Landy.
The film weaves these two threads together to explore Wilson’s creative genius and mental illness. Often it dives into Wilson’s head, giving the audience his perspective of the world around him, especially exploring his perception of sound. Wilson suffers from various mental illnesses, some of them resulting in him hearing sounds and voices that aren’t there. It’s worth mentioning here that Atticus Ross created the score for the film. I’m used to seeing his name paired with Trent Reznor as the two have collaborated on the scores for three David Fincher films, The Social Network, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl. Ross’s score is a mix of original music, Brian Wilson’s music, and ambient sound. At times the film’s aural perspective shifts from the standard third person perspective to that of Brian Wilson’s perspective. Ross along with Sound Designer Eugene Dearty also weave together an aural tapestry that is truly impressive and immersive. One scene, set at a dinner party, is particularly illustrative. The scene begins normally with people at the table conversing and eating, then slowly, almost imperceptibly, the sound begins to slide over into Brian Wilson’s madness. As his anxiety grows, the clinking and scraping of forks on plates and other dinner table sounds grow and grow into a maddening cacophony of noise that is somehow also music.
Credit must also be given to Robert Yeoman, the film’s cinematographer. He and director Bill Pohland seem to work together very well on this project. The film has some beautiful shots, in particular during some of the more insanity and drug fueled moments. The camera also tends to take on a handheld aesthetic during a lot of the studio scenes when Brian Wilson is working on his music. This shaky, pseudo-documentary style works relatively well in giving these scenes an immediacy and realism. At times the camera seems to peek around a corner at a moment or conversation that perhaps we, as the audience, shouldn’t be privy to. At times the shakiness of the camera was a little much for me, especially in scenes where there is no real reason for the camera to be shaking other than to draw attention to itself or perhaps to further illustrate an emotional intensity that is already on display via the performances. If this was the intention it was a tad redundant. Either way, these moments shouldn’t take away from the rest of the film. There are some moments towards the end of the film where the cinematography, score, sound design, and production and art design really come together to create an almost Kubrickian level of intensity and beauty.
The performances are also very good, with Dano and Cusack being the real standouts. Paul Dano is firing on all cylinders. His Brian Wilson is at once timid, confident, intense, shy, genius, and uncertain. This is a performance that easily could have bled over into a caricature of the tortured, misunderstood genius, wracked by mental illness and scarred by an abusive father. Brian Wilson is, of course, all of those things, but he’s also a human being and that’s exactly how Paul Dano plays him. He is particularly electric during the studio sessions as he works with the other musicians to craft his orchestrations. He’s almost manic as he zips between different musicians giving them instructions and reassuring them of odd choices he’s made in the music.
Cusack also manages to portray Wilson as an actual human, rather than a caricature or cliché. In his scenes he’s playing a man who is over medicated and being stretched to the absolute limit of anxiety and emotion. He’s tortured and unhappy, but somehow manages to convey Wilson’s innocence and humanity as well. I haven’t seen Cusack this vulnerable in a film before. He’s very affecting. Elizabeth Banks shines here as Cusack’s love interest. For her performance to work you have to buy that she would fall in love with this man who is so troubled. Banks has a naturalism and openness that works well with Cusack’s performance. Paul Giamatti is fine in this movie if a tad arch for my taste. Whether this is a fault of the script, his performance, or a ridiculous wig that somebody decided to put on him, I’m not sure, but for all his intensity, something didn’t quite work in that performance for me.
I found Love & Mercy to be a really effective exploration of Brian Wilson’s creative genius and mental illness. The film doesn’t fall prey to the usual pitfalls of biopics, eschewing trite explanations and easy answers for complex characterizations and a real commitment to fleshing out this very inscrutable figure in pop culture. Paul Dano and John Cusack’s performances combined with the fine camera work and sound really create something special here. I’d love to see more of what Bill Pohland can do as a director. Love & Mercy opens June 5th.