There are few moments in 12 Years A Slave, Steve McQueen’s latest brutal masterpiece, that will make you pump your fist with enthusiasm, but you may have that exact reaction when Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon Northrup beats down a cruel overseer. Northrup, who is actually a free black man kidnapped into slavery, uses his education to improve productivity on the plantation, a move that Tibeats, a carpenter and overseer, finds irritating. He punishes Northrup, forcing him to wake up early and do extra work; when he sees that Northrup has done the work right he yells at him, pretending the slave screwed up. Northrup, still new to enslavement, talks back to Tibeats, and the overseer pulls out his whip and comes at the man. A scuffle ensues and Northrup is soon straddling Tibeats, beating on the white man who moments ago sought to punish him.
You want Northrup to assert his personhood, and it feels good to see him take down this sniveling weasel of a man. This sniveling weasel of a man played by Paul Dano, who has become the modern face you long to see punched.
It’s not that Dano is a bad guy. I’ve only heard wonderful things about him as a human being, and my short interactions with him have always been lovely. But there’s something about Dano’s face - the flatness of it, perhaps, or the small mouth - that makes him perfect for roles where he gets completely abused.
In Looper he is the loser looper who ends up getting mutilated in a truly horrific way. In Prisoners he’s the mentally handicapped kid who spends the entire movie being tortured. In There Will Be Blood he’s the screeching preacher who gets his face squished in the mud by Daniel Plainview, before being ultimately beaten to death. In Cowboys and Aliens he’s the irritating rich boy who gets his comeuppance again and again. Not every Paul Dano performance has him getting beaten up, but some of the most satisfying ones do.
Dano specializes in whiny, entitled jerks, characters who are in a position where they get power institutionally - power they do not deserve - and they abuse it. Even in Prisoners, where he’s a retarded boy who might be getting tortured for no good reason there’s an ever-present hint that he knows more than he’s saying. Dano is masterful at teasing that out, at finding that exact spot between pathetic and hateable. That face can be turned into that of an unctuous cur, but it can also be used to express infinite sadness and regret. His voice can be brittle and unsure, but it can also be tuned into a squeal not unlike a toddler throwing a fit.
As an actor Dano tends to work opposite higher-profile co-stars. He rarely leads, and when he does it’s usually in the sort of twee indie movie that slips under the radar (see the terrible Gigantic or the okay Ruby Sparks). His best work is character work, supporting in films like Meek’s Cutoff or the possibly underappreciated Fast Food Nation or even Little Miss Sunshine, a film I despise but one that has him impressively using only his expressive face for most of the runtime. His very best work is surely There Will Be Blood, and he brings his weasel game to its highest level there. He’s so perfectly irritating, so absolutely despicable, so oily and barely human. It’s extraordinary.
It’s the sign of a real actor. Dano doesn’t bring anHollywood star’s ego to these roles. He allows you to hate him. More than allows, he demands it. Tibeats in 12 Years A Slave and Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood are detestable people, and Dano doesn’t sugarcoat it. He doesn’t try to make you love them, although he does make them fully human - you understand the way that Tibeats feels showed up, and you understand the petty vices that drive Sunday. Alex Jones in Prisoners is more complex, and Seth in Looper is more of a sad sack, but each of these roles has Dano’s willingness to look bad in common. Too many actors, obsessed with their images, would shy away from parts like these. Too many actors would try to find the angle where the character could be the hero, or at least not so bad. Dano seems to relish these weasels.
I would love to see a Paul Dano leading performance that it is as good as his supporting roles (I honestly think his debut, L.I.E., is his best leading role), but in the meantime I’m happy to see an actor as fearless as he is when it comes to throwing away the most basic elements of likability. I look forward to many more years of spiteful, horrible and generally wretched bastards with punchable faces.