Love & Mercy is very likely the best possible version of its screenplay. Written by Michael Alan Lerner (adapting from his novel Heroes and Villains) and Oren Moverman, this exploration of Brian Wilson’s mental trauma is distributed across two time periods: the ’60s, when he was something of the ringleader of pop-smith group The Beach Boys, and the ’80s, when he was an ailing, anxious shut-in under the domineering control of a doctor whose interest in Wilson becomes more sinister and dogmatic with each minute. The screenplay is not inadequate per-se, and strengths abound. It wisely avoids a narrative-of-progress tone, for instance, and it explores two specific moments in Wilson’s life rather than shuffling the actors through time and Wilson’s best-known moments. In retaining a specificity of focus, it allows the film to be about who Brian Wilson is rather than what he does, and that sort of experiential, lived-in character study is thrillingly antithetical to the spirit of most biopics.
A biopic, Love & Mercy is though, and it cannot avoid some of the more cloying features of the genre. A great plus is the way it simply suggests Wilson’s art through filmmaking and, in particular, audio (but we’ll get to that), rather than carting out events and names of interest for the faithful followers of Wilson. The film is generally at its best when Wilson is not Brian Wilson, but simply a man who happens to make music. It is at its best as an in-the-moment character study rather than a hop-scotching-through-history slog. If only the film stayed in this mode, but the writers can’t resist a little hagiography for one of the great living musicians, and at points, the film sees fit to reduce the man to a “tortured musician” figure that is not in the film’s best interest. The writers avoid the worst tendencies of the biopic genre (categorically the sleepiest genre in all of cinema), but they don’t quite rupture connections to the genre like they should.
The film built around that script, however, is another creature entirely. Bill Pohlad, a producer by trade and previous director of one film a quarter-century ago, has learned his fair share of tricks from shepherding films by the likes of Robert Altman, Terrence Malick, Ang Lee, and Steve McQueen to completion. If nothing else, Love & Mercy reveals that Pohlad had been paying attention all these years, borrowing, almost episodically, the dry, interpersonal humor from Altman, the floating impressionism of Malick, the sensitive period-piece romanticism of Lee, and the icy exploitation qualities of McQueen’s burgeoning body of work.
He also learned the beauty of film as a collaborative art (the benefit of being a producer with so many connections, and man who probably boasts less of an ego and edge for auteurism than most directors he has worked with). He’s picked some of the most divine figures across the spectrum to help lift some of the weight off of his shoulders, and Love & Mercy is a well-oiled machine of nuts-and-bolts craft lingering beneath a slightly stodgy screenplay. Robert Yeoman, best known for working with Wes Anderson (and thus definitionally one of the great working cinematographers today), brings his sunny emphasis on pastels and high-contrast but watered-down colors to sell the pop psychedelia of the ’60s while also draining some of the energy from that psychedelia to discover the essence of the ’60s as Wilson experienced them: both candy-colored and dusted-over with a crying malaise. This isn’t ’60s life as kitsch, but ’60s life as kitsch debating with vivid melancholy, and Yeoman accomplishes a similar effect with the gaudy ’80s, where the lurid colors become more sinister and pointedly surface-level, as though they are hiding a deep dark secret of timely soullessness.
Still, what Yeoman accomplishes is not a patch on Atticus Ross’ score/ sound design, which could not be improved and establishes at least one area in which the film becomes legitimately visionary. Ross begins by concocting a demented, contorted assembly of odds and ends from various Beach Boys songs dissassembled and reassambled in chaotic, disharmonic ways to evoke Wilson’s internal anarchy and the way songs enter his mind as a violent collision course of parts that he must squeeze into whole songs to preserve his sanity, an act that may itself ensure he never can be sane in the end.
From there, Ross experiments with sound mixing in stupendous, slightly sadistic ways. Pohlad clearly keyed in to the genius of Ross (who contributed less revolutionary but nonetheless torn-and-frayed scores of odd angles and torrential sound for David Fincher’s The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, both with Trent Reznor by his side). We know that Pohlad was aware of Ross’ contribution because the first image of the film is an ear, placed so close to the frame that it almost becomes an abstract. But the first thing we experience in the film is a malevolent patchwork of warbles and screeches floating across a black screen and then, when the ear shows up, out of the ear. Not that we see the sounds, although if any film has closed-in on synesthesia better than this, I have not seen it. We don’t see the sound cross the screen. Rather, we hear it, coming from every corner of the screen and traipsing across and stabbing into the screen as it moves from space to space in the frame. It is very possible that no film in existence has done so much to convey a character’s subjective experience with nothing but the angle at which the sound approaches the frame.
Equaling Ross’ craft are the performances, of which the film boasts not a weak-link, or even a mere mild background-player. Paul Giammati as Wilson’s belligerent doctor has the least screen time of the four major players, but he makes a nasty impression with his carnival-clown smile and off-kilter vocalizations, while Elizabeth Banks is transformative in the role of ’80s Wilson’s significant other, who enters his life and contests with Wilson’s doctor when she realizes that he is abusing Wilson. In a neat trick, this half of the film eventually approximates a slimy, sun-drenched ’80s crime thriller out of Magnum PI or another show the characters from this time period might watch, but Banks always finds the human core in the material.
The film would be nothing without its main performances however. Paul Dano, who plays the youthful Wilson, brings an unformed innocence and confusion to the role that both belies and reveals the meaty bedlam lurking in his mind. John Cusack, who plays the middle-aged Wilson, emerges from his recent career slump for a fully invested performance of odd vocalizations and stunted physical gestures to sell a character who is at once a child and an old man. Neither of these actors have ever been this good before, but what is most compelling is how they read off of one another, and how the film’s editing (cutting from time period to time period throughout) sells the connection between the two versions of the same character, as well as the disconnect. It is easy to see the connections between Moverman’s script for the Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There, but Love & Mercy incorporates elements of dialectical interplay between characters lacking in that previous film.
That screenplay always lingers though, and its shifts into needlessly solemn, self-important territory do the film no favors. The old one-two punch of pre-final-credits wrap-up text to inform us of Wilson’s good fate after the film’s timer period, followed by live-action footage of Wilson performing on stage, are as creaky and anemic as you might imagine. The script alone keeps Love & Mercy from top-flight status, but in light of the failings of the genre it inhabits, its achievements within that genre are wholly surprising and often startling. It doesn’t transcend its genre, but Love & Mercy makes it easy to accept merely “sitting at the top-tier of its genre” as a valuable consolation prize.