by Karen Han
Emotional vulnerability has a long history of being cinematic shorthand for weakness, and even mania. In men it's seen as a show of femininity and of powerlessness. In women it's fragility and—at its most extreme—insanity. In general, this vulnerability is a sign of danger. It means stay away. As such, it’s a rarity in film, especially in lead performances, where the default is easy likeability. Actors occasionally take the dive, but it’s usually characterized as a risk (think of Daniel Day-Lewis or Joaquin Phoenix’s recent work), aided by matinee idol looks, or else couched in a context that makes sure the audience knows they were pushed to this point instead of existing there to begin with. A similar phenomenon occurs even off of celluloid; a certain amount of freedom is allowed through childhood, but we’re taught repression as we grow up. Existing on the edge is untenable because it reminds us of the precariousness of being human—it hits too close to home.
It’s a no man’s land. It also comprises the best of Ben Mendelsohn’s career.
Early on, it made Mendelsohn a heartthrob—girls love a boy whose being bad doesn't preclude a certain sensitivity. Just look at Cry-Baby and Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet. Mendelsohn's first major role—as a juvenile delinquent in The Year My Voice Broke—capitalizes on this. Despite any outward "tough guy" signifiers, there's an openness to his features that suggests sweetness, too. Subsequently, he was cast as a romantic lead in Australian films for the next few years—The Big Steal in 1990, then Spotswood in 1992—but the nature of his roles started to shift as he grew older and began to break into Hollywood. That's not entirely surprising; Mendelsohn is striking in the way that Buster Keaton was, not in the way that Hollywood leading men are now. He’s at his most expressive when he’s given the space to be still. His features suggest the entirety of the burden that lends that slope to his shoulders. His eyes dominate his face, the set of his brow permanently suggesting a slight mournfulness or frustration, even in moments of joy—the suggestion that his heart is too close to the surface, too easily given over to not be a little broken. After all, is anyone ever as beautiful as in a moment in which they're being honest?
Netflix’s Bloodline is ostensibly a family drama, but it plays more like a ghost story. As the series progresses, the past and the future converge upon the events playing out like twin specters, with Mendelsohn at the center. As the black sheep and prodigal son, he perfectly captures those dichotomies in emotions and in acting; for the most part, he puts up a front, all charm and ease, but there are moments in which his performance looks inward instead of out, bringing us uncomfortably close to our own anxieties about unconditional love and family, as well as fear of failure. Towards the end of the story, he finally lays out for his family the nature of his resentment toward them. It’s a magician’s show without an assistant, his mannerisms outsized and blasé as he reveals trick after trick in order to drive the knife in deeper. It’s all outward acting. The accusations fly, naturally, and for the most part, they bounce off. And then—one lands. All of his energy changes in tone, that facetious warmth shifting immediately into the startled hurt of retracting one’s hand from a hot stove. The window shutters, once opened outward, are abruptly kicked in. It’s easy to hate him when the buck stops at surface appearances, but as soon as his performance gives way to the blood underneath, things become more complicated.
David Michôd's Animal Kingdom finds its bread and butter in a family as well, though they’re criminals rather than community staples. They're great, hulking creatures; played by Sullivan Stapleton, Luke Ford, and James Frecheville, there's not a single one among them that couldn't snap you in two. Even Smurf (Jackie Weaver), the diminutive matriarch, has an air of danger to her. She's the brains behind the operation; the boys don't act without her say-so. Or at least, none of them do, save one. Pope, played by Mendelsohn, doesn't quite fit with the rest of the brood. While his siblings are all caricatures of the stereotypical golden boy—albeit ones nurtured within a crime family—Pope is relatively small. He carries himself with a slouch, he's a little paunchy, and his features are hangdog. Despite all that (or perhaps because of it), he's the most fearsome animal of the bunch. He's an antithesis to the brand of masculinity that his siblings stand for; he wears his emotions openly on his sleeve, or rather, on his mournful features, and that feeds into his physicality rather than the other way around. His attempts at tenderness come off as predatory; we can read him too clearly, and the paranoia that persists in his demeanor corrupts whatever kindness he tries to express.
The crux of it is this: emotional vulnerability is dangerous because it's taboo, unpredictable. This gets dialed to one extreme in Mendelsohn’s Killing Them Softly character, as a druggie-turned-thief who's barely able to keep his limbs in check, let alone his emotions. On the other end of the spectrum is his performance in the period piece Slow West as an outlaw with a claim to lay on the wild frontier (or so it seems). After a while, it becomes clear that what had originally seemed like the pursuit of money is something a little more sentimentally driven. Both performances are impossible to look away from, magnetic in the way that falling is once it becomes inevitable. Despite knowing that things can’t end well, you can't look away for anticipation—or fear—of what will come next. Pope is fascinating because Mendelsohn leans hard into his vulnerability; he's as raw as an open wound. It's that transfixing quality that made Animal Kingdom Mendelsohn's Hollywood breakout, but it's the kind of good fortune that's come with a caveat, almost a case of missing the forest for the trees. It's fun to watch Mendelsohn play bad; it's diminished when bad is all he is.
Mendelsohn is accorded roughly the same amount of screen time in Rogue One as everyone else (that is to say, not very much), which is equal parts a pity as it is his biggest film role to date, and it's the biggest misstep in utilizing his talents. As strange as it might sound, his character—Orson Krennic, a middling bureaucrat in the Galactic Empire—is best when he's not being a villain. When he's attempting to squash the Rebellion, he's cut and dry. It's when he starts trying to navigate intergalactic office politics that the fun kicks in. His insecurity—and his attempts to cover it up—is so transparent as to nearly be sympathetic, and his most memorable scenes hinge on that desperation not least in part because he is also so obviously trying to cover it up. Loss of composure is largely played for laughs in the Star Wars universe (take Han Solo trying to deal with stormtroopers via intercom, for instance), but in Krennic’s case, it’s not humor so much as it is a keenly human foible. He can’t conceal how frustrated he is with his higher-ups in encounters that end in verbal and physical humiliation. Even during the final battle, he can’t keep from yelling at his subordinates in a way that’s impossible to imagine from, say, Darth Vader. He’s unpredictable and exciting to watch as a result; Krennic only loses focus when aligned with traditionally perceived emblems of strength and villainy. Mendelsohn is always an effective villain, but best when he can get at things through the heart, not through the hamfisted approach that's common in blockbusters.
This isn't to say Mendelsohn is limited by a need to seem vulnerable. Lost River is proof of that; there's nothing remotely open nor sympathetic about his character, who makes his living leeching off of the less fortunate. He's completely opaque. What makes him compelling, as such, is the fact that he's playing the big bad wolf instead of the dragon. He plays up his ability to charm instead of any inclination towards muscle, and uses that to get close before ever baring his fangs. Then there's the fact that the movie doesn't try to make him anything other than what he is: rotten to the core. He's committed—he doesn't have to juggle that with anything else.
All that said, Mendelsohn's most striking when he's allowed to return to the kind of work he was getting nearer to at the beginning of his career: unapologetically tender. That those roles are fewer and farther between must have a little to do with age—repression is something we're taught at a young age, and so it's more acceptable in younger people. In adults, emotional openness is difficult to give and difficult, too, to react to. It's what makes Mississippi Grind hard to watch; the pains and failures that Mendelsohn’s Gerry endures are played so close to the surface that they seem to bleed through to the audience, too. You know before he even begins his journey down the Mississippi that while the story might work out for the better, the ending won't be entirely happy; you know that when he goes to see his ex-wife he's thinking more about himself than he is about her, and that he knows that, too. You can read each bad decision he's about to make before he ever makes it, and the painful part is that so can he. His failures don't sit any better with him than they do with those around him. Again, there's that weight on his shoulders, giving him a permanent slouch, a perpetually nervous kind of smile. He's an open book, and the pages say loser. How's that for a leading man?
The film is filled with quiet moments and close-ups. For all that it could be showy—he's headlining with Ryan Reynolds, after all—it isn't. The proof lies in the climax of the movie, in which directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck stop the action for a full minute to let a final, honest moment between the two protagonists play out. We don't directly see the results of the gamble that they take; the next shot is of Mendelsohn's face, and it holds for a long count. He's numb, rather than happy or sad. And isn't that truer to life, to the workings of the heart? Imagine that you'd bet everything you had—and more—on a single roll of dice.
The movie ends on a close-up, too. Gerry sits in his car, listening to the self-help tape he's been playing throughout the movie. He looks no different than he had at the beginning of the film, a little slouched, bruises and cuts at his temple, his gaze directed downward. In the next few moments, he transforms. It's obvious and indistinguishable at the same time. He's still the same person, he's just—different. He projects a different emotion. He straightens up, and comes as close to looking directly into the camera as anyone can without outright breaking the fourth wall. His heart's still open, but it's a song in a different key. It's a beautiful moment of stillness, and the perfect grace note for a movie that capitalizes on quiet and on essential honesty.
The heart wants what it wants. That's presumably the logic behind the phrase, "a crime of passion," which in itself encapsulates the thrill and danger of opening up. You'll never be safe, but you can forge a deeper connection. There's a certain magic that occurs whenever that kind of connection manifests onscreen, flying in the face of what's generally deemed appropriate or expected. Ben Mendelsohn is perhaps one of the best and most overlooked actors when it comes to emotional honesty. It feels true, coming from him, in how simultaneously ennobling and destabilizing it can be. It's the latter effect that's most often misread—as contradictory as it may seem, the dangerousness he projects is flat without some emotional drive behind it. He’s remarkable as a performer because he embraces what most (male stars in particular) usually shy away from. He embraces honesty in an art form that demands some pretend, and we as an audience are richer for it.
Karen Han is a writer based in NYC, via the midwest. She holds a B.A. in History of Art, and writes about film, music, TV, and Tintin.