America’s facing tough times right now. Our dominance as a world power is fading, our economy continues to crumble and we’re more and more beginning to resemble the UK in those post-WWII years where the nation tried to come to grips with no longer being the ruling empire.
Patrick Wilson is the face of that America.
No other actor so regularly and so well plays the emasculated, wimped out version of modern American masculinity. Good looking and husky voiced, Wilson seems to be the image of a good, stand-up guy. A strong dude, someone who isn’t cruel or unfair, but probably someone who can take care of himself. And again and again he plays roles that completely undermine that.
It starts where he does, with the HBO version of Angels in America. He plays right wing, Mormon American family man Joe Pitt… who also happens to be a closeted homosexual. Wilson comes out the gate subverting his own image, and almost never lets up.
He’s not gay as Raoul in Phantom of the Opera, but he’s almost totally ineffectual. Wilson is the handsome love interest, and while he technically wins the girl it’s more likely that the disfigured titular maniac truly touched her in a more profound way. It’s a hollow victory.
After those roles come the two back to back movies that I think really establish the Wilson formula. In Hard Candy he plays his creepiest role, but he actually spends most of the movie at the mercy of a little girl. For the first time the security of his dick is really called into question, during a very memorable scene where Ellen Page pretends to cut it off. Watching the movie from the POV of Wilson’s character Hard Candy is almost Vietnam - how the hell did the little guy win this one so handily?
The predatory nature of his role in Hard Candy makes it tough to slot this into the ‘emasculated American male’ thesis, unless you assume that British director David Slade (and Canadian actress Ellen Page as well) simply sees America as being predatory.Wilson does this sort of role reversal again in The A-Team, where he’s bad guy who looks like he should be a good guy. But of course he’s portrayed as ineffectual and goofy there, too - once again undercutting his natural American wholesomeness.
But it’s Little Children that cements Wilson into this part. The movie is like the ur-text of Patrick Wilson As Emasculated American Man. It’s important that Wilson isn’t a nerd or a misfit - he’s a former football player who used to be cool but who has found the world moved on past him. He’s got a wife who further emasculates him by being the one who brings home the bacon. He’s a semi-useless lump who is supposedly studying for the bar but can barely be bothered. And then when he finally finds some excitement again and is about to run away with Kate Winslet he blows it all because he can’t do a jump on a skateboard.
Other films have tried to subvert Wilson’s own natural subversion of American masculinity. Lakeview Terrace, for example, has white and ineffectual Wilson up against his neighbor, black and powerful Samuel L Jackson. For most of the running time Wilson’s character is beyond useless, a total schmuck who is intimidated by Jackson because of his race and his job as a cop. The situation would settle into one where Jackson is the alpha dog on the block and Wilson his bitch, but Jackson’s mental condition keeps deteriorating. In the end Wilson is able to trump Jackson not as a man but as a victim - during a standoff he gets Jackson to shoot him, spurring the police to shoot Jackson. Even when Wilson is the hero of the piece, he’s the stooge.
Which brings us to Watchmen. It’s another Patrick Wilson Special. Once a proud superhero, Nite Owl has gone to seed and cannot even get it up. What’s interesting is that this is probably the nerdiest role that Wilson has played; his other ineffectual men have been pretty square, straight down the middle white guys. Whether they rape kids or get abused by Samuel L Jackson they’re all the kinds of guys who come home from work, have a beer and work on the car. Nite Owl is a bit different, but he’s actually quite close to the Brad character in Little Children. While Nite Owl is a fanboy for superheroes, he actually became a superhero himself; at one time he was manly enough to do at least that. Like Brad’s football past, Nite Owl has a past that was better than his present - he’s fallen.
Nite Owl is probably the most hopeful of all of Wilson’s emasculated American male characters; he’s essentially useless in the big fight at the end, but he at least gets the girl and seems pretty happy. He’s discovered a way to live within the confines of his own failure, and has in fact seemed to partially embrace it.
I wish I had seen Barry Munday if only because it’s a movie where Wilson actually gets his balls cut off - that’s the premise of the movie. It completes the emasculation arc for Wilson’s career - threatened emasculation in Hard Candy, self-inflicted emasculation in Watchmen and finally true, hardcore, ball-loss emasculation here. Maybe if I ever write a book about Patrick Wilson’s emasculated American male I’ll get around to this one.
Which brings us to the new Patrick Wilson movie opening this weekend, Insidious. And before you ask, yes, he once again plays an ineffectual man. He’s a father who, once his home life gets bad (his son falls into a bizarre coma), essentially checks out. Instead of being at home with his emotionally distraught wife, Wilson’s character stays late at the school where he teaches, just snoozing behind his desk. Out of all his lame ass, pussified men, this might be the worst - it isn’t even that the film’s hauntings have him freaked out, it’s just that he doesn’t want to be home to deal with all the pain.
Eventually Wilson is forced to take action in the third act, and to tell you any more is to spoil the film, but I will say that nothing in Insidious made me think Wilson was overcoming this particular niche in which he has found himself.
And why is Wilson in this niche? Why is he almost always playing these same, internally soft characters? He’s handsome, he’s got a decent build, he could be the real hero. Except that there’s something in his eyes; it’s one of the things that made Hard Candy so effective, is that there’s something in Wilson’s eyes that makes you think he wouldn’t hurt you. Maybe his lips too. He has sweet lips.
As long as America continues its slow, sad decline from dominance, Patrick Wilson will have a career. He’s us, the guy who should be doing so much better, who should be so much tougher, but who just can’t quite get it together.