My previous reviews of Paul Walker’s movies share a repetitive sentiment: the majority of his films “simply aren’t for me.” Why then was I struck with a curious sense of loss when the news of Walker’s death broke late yesterday? I suppose that’s one of the complex questions surrounding the public’s fascination with pop culture: why do we feel sad when celebrities die?
People die everyday, all over the world, in inhumane and cruel ways. We hear about a lot of them on the news. We empathize, but do we feel actual loss? Perhaps we’re desensitized to the brutalities of the world. Or, perhaps we can’t afford to emotionally invest in the loss of someone we don’t know. And that’s the thing: we know actors. We occasionally spend two consecutive hours watching them; watching them cry, laugh, make love, get hurt. We experience them at their most vulnerable, so we inadvertently feel we’re sharing something with them. When a death occurs, we often forget that those people we shared something with are characters, not the people themselves. That’s the power of captivating cinema: you allow yourself to believe it’s real.
|In John Dahl’s terrific Joy Ride|
I was devastated when I found out Heath Ledger died. Soon after hearing the news, I realized why. I knew Heath Ledger. No, not technically, of course, but from the perspective of a film fanatic, I knew and loved him. I loved the quiet torment he brought to so many of his characters. I loved his timid smile, his pain, holy hell, could that man show pain. Sadness always accompanies death. And when it’s the death of someone so innocent and young, the pain is magnified. I was hurt by Ledger’s death because that’s what you do when you hear someone has died: you hurt. But chiefly, selfishly, I missed Heath Ledger because I knew I’d miss his talent.
I grieved for Ledger because I loved his work, and was sad we wouldn’t be given more. Thing is, I’m not drawn to Paul Walker’s films, so how do I explain this sadness? This is the question I battled with in the hours after I heard of Walker’s passing. Late in the evening, it suddenly hit me.
|In Wayne Kramer’s insane and charged Running Scared|
I’m sad about Paul Walker’s passing, because Paul Walker seemed like a genuinely good guy. If you read the dozens and dozens of tweets Walker’s friends and collaborators have written about him since yesterday, there’s a shared response in all of them: Walker was a nice guy. A free spirit. Kind, courteous, professional. He treated people with respect and never let Hollywood, in all its shameful extravagance, get the better of him.
But there was more.
On a professional level, Paul Walker was that rare kind of actor who knew exactly the breadth of his talent. He wasn’t Daniel Day-Lewis. He wasn’t Michael Fassbender. He wasn’t Heath Ledger. He was Paul Walker, and he knew it. He had that type of self-effacing attitude that’s all too rare. He never pretended to be anything more than what he was. Keanu Reeves has it. Hell, so does Woody Allen. The attitude that allows them to openly admit that they are only really able to play one character.
|As Brian O’Conner in Fast Five|
I remember seeing an interview with Walker and Vin Diesel shortly after Fast Five was released. Diesel went off on a tangent and, in so many words, said Fast Five had a good shot at being nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. He wasn’t joking. He said movies are entertaining, and Fast Five was pure entertainment. So, on the basis of that claim, Diesel said Fast Five deserved to be hailed as one of the best films of the year by the Academy. What was most interesting about that interview wasn’t Diesel’s claims, but rather Walker’s reaction to them. I remember watching Walker sit in his chair, fidgeting nervously, chuckling occasionally to break the tension. When the interviewer asked Walker what he thought about Fast Five’s Best Picture hopes, Walker stayed diplomatic, agreeing with Diesel about the film’s level of entertainment, but skillfully avoiding Oscar talk.
Paul Walker knew Fast Five wasn’t Best Picture material. He knew Brian O’Conner, his character in the Fast and Furious films, was never going to merit awards attention. He knew what the Fast and Furious movies were, and he knew he was damn lucky to have a career because of them.
Paul Walker knew what Paul Walker could do, and he never suggested otherwise.
|As Lance Harbor in Varsity Blues|
In all honesty, Paul Walker did show moments of greatness on screen. You can see it when he’s pathetically begging Reese Witherspoon to have sex with him (again) in Pleasantville. You can see it when he shows up as Rachael Leigh Cook’s surprise prom date in She’s All That. Or when he celebrates with glee after his team wins the big game in Varsity Blues. Or when he dismisses his girlfriend in The Skulls by refusing to move out of the way as he watches a crew competition. And you can especially see it in the authentic hopelessness he brought to his two best roles, as a scared shitless prankster in Joy Ride, and a low level thug in Running Scared.
I liked Paul Walker in those movies. I liked that he was an actor unmoved by the Hollywood sharks. I liked that he embraced the public perception of who he is, and fleshed it out continually on screen. That level of openness is rare in this industry, and I’ll certainly miss Paul Walker because of it.