(Continued from Part 1)

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What am I thinking of particularly on this topic, actors being unfairly accused of overacting? Two films from a couple years ago. One is The Mist [Frank Darabont, 2007], with Marcia Gay Harden as a religious zealot of no particular church. She doesn’t become a major character until about a third of the way in, making one feel that she’s horning in on the other actors’ movie. In fact, her character is horning in on the other characters’ nascent plans. She destabilizes the fragile order of the grocery store besieged by veiled monsters. Unlike The Mist‘s other intensely irritating antagonist – Andre Braugher’s irritable skeptic/rationalist type – she needs people to believe in her in order to accomplish anything. So she needs to be constantly talking. Everything she says is hateful or awkward, and she’s been waiting all her life for someone to listen instead of brushing her off. She’s been waiting all her life to have a captive audience.

This is a character you can’t play without making everyone aware that you’re trying to direct their attention toward you and you alone. Anyone in this role would be accused of overacting. Many productions have a role like that – you have some characters that are just getting through their day, and then you have one or two characters for whom this is is the biggest day they’ll ever face and they are very emotional. Maybe Burl Ives is overacting as Big Daddy. Maybe Guy Pearce is overacting as Leonard Shelby. Maybe it would be impossible not to overact in these roles, and the actor shouldn’t resent being accused of taking the easy way and having too much fun.

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Another note on The Mist: The actress who plays Thomas Jane’s wife Jessie is fantastic. Her name’s Kelly Collins Lintz and you can check out her performance here, albeit dubbed into Turkish. I was distressed to see that almost all her significant roles are in things to which I respond with part-instinctive, part-culturally-determined revulsion. (Exception: Surface. All fifteen episodes of which are available for free in IMDB’s Hulu links! Expiring tomorrow. What?) Lintz is only in a couple scenes at the start of the movie, and to her predictable motherly dialogue she adds flourishes that can be best described as “quizzical”. Eye rolls, laughs, gestures. I was looking forward to seeing what she’d do in the rest of the movie, but lasted 20 minutes before needing to go to bed. Resuming The Mist two nights later, I was disappointed by her generic performance as the protector of Billy in the supermarket. At the very end I was abruptly reminded that Jessie hadn’t accompanied her husband to the store, and the maternal role was being filled by a similarly blonde local schoolteacher, to which role Laurie Holden didn’t bring anything you won’t find in a thousand other horror films.

* * *

Like Tommy Lee Jones, Willem Dafoe is slapped down for “overacting” whenever he does a frivolous role [Boondock Saints, Spider-Man 2, xXx: State of the Union]. My first instinct was to accuse him of that offense in Daybreakers [2009], the mostly-satisfying vampire-world film that was saddled with the miserably awkward release date of January 8, 2010, surrounded by competitors big and small in the undead genre. Ethan Hawke (L) here is a vampire and Willem Dafoe (R) is a non-vampire who calls himself Elvis. Daybreakers proceeds nicely until Elvis shows up.

Conceived by the unpretentious Queensland-based team of Michael and Peter Spierig, now reported to be helming a Dark Crystal reboot, Daybreakers is about a world where vampires have taken over and non-vampires are farmed for blood. The lopsided qualities of the storytelling recall a comic book, in that

  • The world-building is amazing — all your questions about day-to-day logistics are answered. And yet
  • The plot has gigantic and obvious holes — did nobody anticipate running out of blood until a week before it happened? Have there been no scientific investigations by the ex-humans, now-vampires, into how this world can be coped with, aside from speculative and derided attempts to synthesize a blood substitute?

The design of the vampire-modded cars is delightful. The minor characters are intriguing. The storyline of well-meaning innovations and cynical machinations at a cosmopolitan drug corporation is not completely predictable. I was engaged, until this hard-bitten snake-eating vigilante named Elvis revealed himself as the savior of humanity/vampirity. He’s responsible for every positive plot development. He’s very helpful by nature and very cagey. Why is he so annoying? What’s wrong with this character?

  • A) He calls himself “Elvis”. [rolls eyes] This encapsulates the deceptively unrewarding a role this is for Defoe. The character is supposed to be charismatic, and he’s capable, but he is just not written consistently enough for us to see why he’d be charismatic. The character makes himself the center of attention, and he’s grating. This means whenever he wants me to think he’s done something great, I look for reasons to attribute it to his luck rather than his talent. I just want him to go away, and for the actor to help him go away by being more subdued.
  • B) He’s a TV character. I almost think this was envisioned as a big-budget TV series, part Jericho and part Justified, with Elvis and his gritty band of survivors, going town to town, lending a hand to people in crisis in the post-apocalyptic vampire world. And he made me realize that all the other characters are TV characters. His detective-esque non-vampire sidekick, both authoritative and vulnerable. Sam Neill’s amoral corporate boss. The corporate boss’s daughter, who fills two roles in the plot through the sort of awkward coincidence that’s often made necessary by a network TV show’s cramped cast structure. Ethan Hawke’s brother who follows the heart/fist rather than the head. Generic.
  • C) He’s not Australian. Every actor in the film is Australian or Kiwi except him and Ethan Hawke. It was made in Australia by Australian writer/directors. The credits contain multiple logos acknowledging Australian government support. To put it another way, it’s an Australian movie, and the fact that every actor is doing a fake and featureless American accent makes it even more like something made for TV. Ethan Hawke could easily be a star American scientist recruited to an Australian company, that part is fine. But the Elvis role should belong to a man vaguely indigenous to the film’s stark desert landscapes through which the vampire characters skulk fearfully.

I felt bad for actors like Claudia Karvan and Michael Dorman, unnecessarily devoting brainpower to maintaining their American accents, brainpower that could have been used to nuance their performances beyond “nervous woman” and “Jeremy Renner character”. I could imagine having twinges of resentment toward the two Hollywood stars, barging into our continent and forcing us all to pronounce our words their way, just because of the unipolar nature of the entertainment industry. If the Spierigs could have foreseen the success District 9 had without needing to fake a North American setting, they could have dared to make this the mass-market Australian vampire movie, like their own Undead [2003] had been the independent Australian zombie movie.

Although really, do we need any more proof that worldwide audiences can embrase a dystopian vision populated wholly by Australians?

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