Monday, May 12, 2014

In Character: Jeremy Davies

Mystery is an odd thing. You can’t ask for it, nor can you will it. It can’t be an act, it simply has to be. Joaquin Phoenix is, perhaps, the current leader of self-imposed oddity, taking over for the King of All Strange Kings, Christopher Walken. Casey Affleck is in there, as is Tilda Swinton. And lest we forget the Crispin Glover and Tim Curry’s of the world. I could go on, but you get the point. And when having a conversation about odd yet talented performers, Jeremy Davies deserves to be listed chief among them. The man moves to his own beat, rarely delivering a role that isn’t directly spawned from his own unique sensibilities. There’s no phoning it in for Jeremy Davies, the man goes all in, using his peculiarity to reel us, before flooring us with his quiet power.

Note: I gave up on Lost long before Davies began appearing on the show. So unfortunately, his work as Daniel Faraday was not considered here.

Five Essential Roles
Spanking the Monkey (1994)
Ray Aibelli
David O. Russell’s first film was a micro-budget indie about a young kid who develops one hell of an Oedipus complex while taking care of his injured mother. Spanking the Monkey was risqué in 1994, and remains just as controversial today. The reason it works is because its 24-year-old star owns the darkly humorous, shockingly depraved material from the onset. I’m honestly not sure if the film would have catapulted the careers of Davies and Russell had Davies’ work not been so nuanced. Spanking the Monkey surely isn’t for everyone, but if you’re going to go there, then you damn well better own it.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Cpl. Timothy Upham
As Cpl. Timothy Upham, Davies created a persona that has followed him throughout his career. The nervous, jittery everyman; the guy who appears to wear his wear on his sleeve. Innocent, repressed, mysterious. You’re never sure which way he’s going to go, or what his breaking point, once reached, will motivate him to do.

Now, for anyone who has seen Saving Private Ryan, you know Davies’ work in the film comes down to one pivotal, horrific scene. A scene in which Davies stands mortified in a stairwell, paralyzed by fear. I remember watching this movie once with one of my best friends and his father, who was a war veteran. After this scene, my friend, perhaps in an effort to be macho, said of Davies’ character, “Wow, what a pussy.” His dad paused the movie and looked at him. “You try going to a fucking war, then tell me who the pussy is.”

Pretty much exactly how I’ve always thought about the scene. You can’t know, unless you know.

Solaris (2002)
Snow
Snow is the finest encapsulation of Davies’ trademark nervous energy. From the moment we meet him, we never have the slightest clue how to figure him out. His fluid, abrupt speech pattern mixed with his flamboyant mannerisms and ceaseless gum chewing make it impossible to pin Snow down. He could simply be the kind guy he presents himself as. Or he could be a psychotic madman wreaking havoc in the troubled Solaris Station. And it is thanks much in part to Davies’ heightened mystery that I consider Solaris one of Steven Soderbergh’s very best films. There is a lot I love about this film, but Snow is such an odd, unique character, that I find him so captivating. The way Davies manages, for example, to elongate the utterance of the word “Yeah” and turn it into something so puzzling, really is a feat in and of itself. Snow is very nearly my favorite Jeremy Davies performance. Just perfect.

Secretary (2002)
Peter
Obviously, Jeremy Davies has a penchant for playing men who are… off, to say the least. And when an actor so dutifully fits into that specific brand of oddness, I always find myself drawn to their characters who are more or less “normal.” So describes Peter, a gentle, quiet young man longing for the lasting affection of his girlfriend, a deeply disturbed Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Okay, so, of course Peter isn’t fully normal, but for a Jeremy Davies role, Peter is about as ordinary and unassuming as it gets. As is often the case, Roger Ebert said it best when he described Peter as “sincere to the point of being inarticulate.” Peter is a man-child, too engulfed in his own innocence to fully understand the complex woman before him.

Justified (2011-2014)
Dickie Bennett
I’ve featured three other actors from Justified in my In Character series: Margo Martindale, who won an Emmy for playing ferocious psycho Mags Bennett, Walton Goggins, Justified’s primary villain-turned antihero, and Neal McDonough, who still attains the title of Justified’s best villain. And now we get Davies’ Emmy-winning work as Dickie Bennett, son of Mags. The unkempt, narrow minded, ruthless Dickie. Dickie is a toilet bug that won’t go away – you think you flush him down, and he just rides the wave and rises again. There is no end to my fascination with what Davies does with this character. I’m sad that Dickie has been absent as of late, but it was a joy to see him pop up late in Season 5, still thinking he’s the smartest guy in the room.

The Best of the Best
Rescue Dawn (2007)
Gene DeBruin
We meet a man. A man plagued by physical illness and emotional decay. A man slowly withering away from hunger and naiveté. Gene DeBruin is one of six men rotting away in a small Vietnamese prisoner of war camp. When German-born pilot, Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) is captured and brought to the camp, Dieter immediately begins to devise a plan to escape. But Gene isn’t on board. Convinced that they will either be freed or rescued, Gene adamantly protests Dieter’s plans. Essentially, Gene is presented as the film’s third villain, behind the Vietnamese guards and the dense jungle surrounding them all. But what makes Gene the scariest of the lot is his delusions of freedom – he genuinely believes freedom will be afforded to him, just cause.
That’s the set-up of the complex, central battle of Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn. As Gene, Jeremy Davies delivers one of the best, most horrifying portrayals of a POW that I’ve ever seen. Much of his performance is executed by barely speaking above a cracked whisper. His words, terrifying in their threat. His movements, chilling in their ease. There’s an unpredictability to his work here, a hushed, Charles Manson appeal I find utterly enthralling.

The shot directly above is one I’ll never forget:  a shell of a man, circling alone in the dense jungle, talking to himself, chuckling, lost. What quiet power, indeed.

Other Notable Roles
In Lars von Trier's Dogville
The Wonder Years (1992)
Nell (1994)
Twister (1996)
Going All the Way (1997)
Ravenous (1999)
The Million Dollar Hotel (2000)
CQ (2001)
The Laramie Project (2002)
Dogville (2003)
Helter Skelter (2004)
Manderlay (2005)
Lost (2008-2010)
It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010)
Hannibal (2014)

33 comments:

  1. Fantastic post! I've always loved his work, but especially his work in "Justified". His character was so demanding there and he totally went for it. No-holds-barred, he just killed it.

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    1. Thanks buddy! He definitely killed it on that show. I mean holy shit, just look at that damn hair! He's an actor completely void of vanity.

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  2. A truly great actor who doesn't fit into any mold yet always deliver. I enjoyed his performance as Peter in Secretary as he is this oddball that seems to be comfortable with what he has but has no clue in how to please Lee sexually nor understands how much she's grown as a person.

    I also loved him in CQ as he is someone who definitely has an understanding of the movie he's making while also wanting to do something that feels very personal as it's a very underrated film.

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    1. I really love CQ as well and was hoping to fit it in as one of his best. A tough call, but definitely a very underrated film. Glad to hear you're a Davies fan, he really does always deliver.

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  3. Ah, thank you for doing this. Jeremy Davies is one of my all time favorite character actors and he is always overlooked i feel. His performance in Rescue Dawn was Oscar worthy and it got no award love anywhere (that entire movie was pretty much overlooked everywhere). He is also fantastic on Justified and i heard that he is getting a bigger role next season. It is the last after all and they can't leave him out then. It's a shame you gave up on Lost though because he was pretty damn great there as well. It was pretty much only him, Michael Emerson and Terry O'Quinn that made the show watchable in the later seasons though. I agree with every entry on this list though. He is a fantastic actor and seeing him get some well deserved attention always makes me happy.

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    1. Hey man, I really do appreciate the push on this. Davies deserves so much recognition, andI'm happy to do what I can to shed some light on his talent. Rescue Dawn was one of my favorite films of 2007 (there hasn't been as good a year in film since, in my opinion). I love the hell out of it, and Davies' work is fucking terrifying. That guy just feels so damn real. I know it must have been hell for DeBruin's family to see that incarnation, but goddamn, what powerful acting.

      Lost just wasn't for me. I gave it a season and a half before I tuned out. A circle jerk of a show that grew tirelessly dull.

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  4. I really wish Davies worked more often. I have yet to see his television work but every film I've seen him in just makes me wish he had a larger body of work. I think I'm pretty much were you are when it comes to Spanking The Monkey (based on what you say here and in your David O. Russel piece) but what a performance he gives in Rescue Dawn. I totally agree with that Charles Manson sentiment you said, I wouldn't doubt some of his performance was influenced by him playing Manson in Helter Skelter. He sends a chill down my spine every time I see that scene you pictured above.

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    1. I wish he worked more too, but I think thevoid is onto something: because Davies doesn't always fit the mold, it will always prevent him from being cast in more stuff. But a lot of that is by choice, I assume. I'm sure he gets pitched stuff all the time that he denies, you know?

      I definitely think he carried over some of his work as Manson to Gene DeBruin. In many ways, DeBruin feels more Manson than his Manson. Fucking terrifying.

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  5. Honestly, I'm usually kind of indifferent to Davies' work. However, ridiculously good in Saving Private Ryan. I hated him sooooo much in that movie. Great post.

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    1. I love that SPR made room for a outwardly compassionate character like Upham. A lot of characters in war films change to become more understanding (including many of the men in SPR), but from Upham's first scene, you know he has no interest in being a fighter. Glad to hear you like that performance; he kills me there.

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  6. No! No one should give up on LOST!

    Davies was fantastic as Faraday, and he brought an element to Saving Private Ryan that just blew me away. That moment with him in the stairwell is the most memorable of the entire film, in my opinion.

    Great write-up!

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    1. Thanks man. Lost, couldn't do it. Gave up about midway into season 2. I found it incredibly dull and realized that it wasn't going anywhere, presumably until its final episode. But hey, we like what we like, and that show had an insane following, so more power to it. Did you like the finale?

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    2. Honestly, I never set my expectations too high for the finale, so I did enjoy it. Was I blown away by it?... No. But, I'm not the kind of guy who watches a show just to see how it ends. I like to sit back and enjoy the ride. Those characters are family to me, and I would have been satisfied regardless. I've actually watched the show from start to finish twice since it went off the air (on top of watching it in real time). It's my favorite TV show of all time, hands down!

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    3. I think when you're that much of a fan of something, you can't be in it just to see how it all ends. You have to be in it for the ride. So it's cool that you had that mentality about the show. I've definitely loved shows as much as you loved Lost - it's so special when you connect with something so deeply, isn't it?

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    4. Absolutely! Movie characters just can't do for a person what a TV character can. It's a great feeling when you are so invested in their story.

      Aside from LOST, the only other shows that I would even put anywhere close to that level of connectivity (for me, personally) are The Office, The West Wing, The Big Bang Theory, M*A*S*H, and American Horror Story... New Girl and Orange is the New Black have the potential to join that club, but I'm not ready to give them all that credit yet. That list may sound quite non-exclusive, but I watch A LOT of TV! What are your favorites?

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    5. Nice man. I actually hardly watch any TV at all. But over the years, I have managed to catch some of the bigger ones. My favorite is The Wire, bar none. Like you with Lost, I’ve gone back and watched The Wire three times all the way through, and it just gets better and better. I watched The West Wing in full last summer (I had never seen it), and quite enjoyed it. The Sopranos, Oz, Mad Men, Girls, True Detective, Deadwood, The Shield – it’s mostly cable or pay cable shows that I love.

      And therein lies my dilemma with TV. I sense you had a real, deep emotional connection with Lost, which is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced from a TV show. Literally, I can’t think of one that has hit me that emotionally. The short-lived show Boomtown had some great, emotional moments, as did HBO’s In Treatment. But for the most part, film is where my heart lies. Funny.

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    6. Well, I will be hoping that you find your special show!

      True Detective was absolutely great, and I really can't wait to see where they go next season. I plan to watch Mad Men and Oz, one day, but I could never get into The Shield or Girls. The West Wing is easily my second favorite drama, as I know I have likely professed my love for Sorkin to you before.

      (Sorry to keep on commenting!)

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    7. Don't ever apologize for commenting! I love having these sorts of conversations. I really love Sorkin as well. The Newsroom is... okay, but not as good to me as his others. I actually quite loved Studio 60, and Sports Night... minus the laugh track, a superb show.

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    8. I love The Newsroom, but the characters are fairly shallow. Studio 60 was pretty good, and I haven't actually had the chance to watch Sports Night yet. The Social Network is absolutely amazing... Probably my favorite film of all time. And, of course, I can't wait for the Steve Jobs film!

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    9. Nice man. Have you seen Malice? Decent film, but Baldwin has some priceless Sorkin lines in there. Really fun.

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    10. I haven't... I'll have to check that out! Thanks!

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  7. Oh I loved his work in Solaris, his suggestion that the women on the ship should talk because they're both female was so funny and he provided a little bit of comic relief there.

    As much as I hated how Lost deteriorated in quality over the years, he was excellent in it.

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    1. Ah, I LOVE that bit from Solaris. He was so damn priceless in that movie. Although Lost wasn't for me, I do like hearing that he was great in it. Was he a creep or a good guy? Bit of both?

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    2. I think he was a good guy - definitely at the beginning, kinda like a child in a fog ^^ Not sure if he didn't turn evil later, as I blocked later seasons of the show from memory ^^

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    3. Ahh gotcha. Who knows, maybe I'll check it out one day.

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  8. Just a little correction for you here: You said you have featured two other actors from Justified here before, but you have featured three. You forgot about Neil McDonough. Anyway, great list as always. Love Jeremy Davies. Dickie Bennet is one of the greatest characters on Justified and TV in general. I really hope we get more of him in the last season.

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    1. NEALLLL. Oh shit man, how could I drop the ball on that? Easily my favorite villain from the show. Have dutifully corrected the error - thanks man! Oh, and I'm really happy you like Davies. He's so damn good on that show.

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  9. The first time I saw him was in The Million Dollar Hotel and he totally impressed me there. It still remains one of the best performances I've ever seen. I loved his dynamic with Milla Jovovich, they were amazing. And the other one, from the films you've listed that I've seen, has to be Rescue Dawn. Excellent performance.

    Solaris is my favorite film from Soderbergh. I love Tarkovsky's adaptation with a passion, but I think Soderbergh reinvented the story in a really cool way. The Dylan Thomas' reference, Cliff Martinez beautiful soundtrack and Natascha McElhone - she's one of my favorite actresses - made it for me. And of course Davies was a great add to all that.

    I have to check Spanking the Monkey, I didn't even know about that one from O. Russell.

    Oh and Phoenix - Walken - Swinton are three of my dear favorites, so I guess I'm in for the bizarre haha. Casey Affleck, in the few thing I've seen him, was really great, he deserves more attention.

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    1. Holy shit, so I need to rewatch The Million Dollar Hotel ASAP. I’ve only seen it once, when it first came out, but I was probably too young to fully appreciate it. But your praise is all I need to give it another go.

      You’re love for Solaris makes me oh so happy. I absolutely adore that film. It’s had such a lasting impact on my own filmmaking career. In terms of its structure, patience, acting – it’s really just perfect. I swear I didn’t do this on purpose, but I few months after I released Earrings, a friend of mine on Twitter was watching Solaris, and kept tweeting me stills from that film that looked almost identical to ones from Earrings. So funny how that film has crept into my subconscious and stayed.

      Last year, I ranked all of Soderbergh’s films, placing Solaris third (behind Traffic and Out of Sight). Today, I think I’d put it at number two, slightly ahead of Out of Sight. Love that movie.

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  10. I caught some of Rescue Dawn on TV recently, and Davies really is exceptional in that role. He's also wonderful in Savin Private Ryan, for sure. I still need to see Secretary and Spanking the Monkey, though.

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    1. He's really great in everything - Spanking the Monkey is such a risky film for everyone involved. It's good, but not something I'll need to revisit soon, you know?

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  11. I've only seen two of the films you refer to here: Saving Private Ryan and Solaris, but I would agree that both films showed his talent really well. As Cpl. Upham he captured the essence of how an ordinary man is affected when suddenly confronted with the horrors of war. As Snow his character was always kinda weird, the way that he had this friendly demeanor but he was always acting so casual about everything and never really answering Kelvin's questions.

    Also, it's nice to see another fan of Soderbergh's Solaris. A lot of people dismiss that film but I may well be the only person in the universe to prefer it over the Tarkovsky version.

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    1. Oh man, you are in fine company here. No hate to Tarkovsky - love all of his films, but I far prefer Soderbergh's Solaris. I remember being utterly enchanted with that film when I saw it in the theater, and my love has only grown. Its look, its narrative, the acting - it's all so perfect. It has been a huge influence on my own filmmaking as well. Love it.

      Glad to hear you're a Davies fan. That dude rocks.

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