Two extraordinary performances elevate Bill Pohlad’s insightful contemplation of the troubled life and times of influential Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson, played as a younger man by Paul Dano and later on by John Cusack. Love & Mercy (2015) works brilliantly as an intense, disconcerting character study and as a commentary on the harmful side effects of creativity. The nonlinearity of the narrative, which sees the story split between two time frames, is effective in bleeding together the most crucial segments of Wilson’s life and recovery. Back and forth we smoothly transition from the heady days of the creation of seminal 1966 album Pet Sounds to Wilson’s 1980’s post-depressive recovery which was undermined by the venal, corrosive influence of his therapist-cum-legal guardian Dr. Eugene Landy (played with a suitable toxicity by Paul Giamatti).
In both cases, Pohlad concentrates uncomfortably on the dark undercurrent of dysfunction that plagued both Wilson’s erratic creative processes and his beleaguered attempt to reach a psychological equilibrium. His potential saviour in this later era is car saleswoman Melinda Bedletter (the ever-impressive Elizabeth Banks) who helps Wilson to focus on the light at the end of the tunnel. She alone is able to penetrate the fog assembled as part of Landy’s unhealthy influence on every facet of Wilson’s frighteningly compromised existence.
The conviction of all the performances is what defines this superb film. Throughout the successful Beach Boys era, Wilson was plagued by self-doubt and a streak of resolute defiance, wanting to take the band in new directions that might deviate from their successful formula but bring freshness to their output. The resulting conflict with his brothers and other band members and crew is a source of distress to Wilson who often seems to regress to a place of consoling inner calm as a means of dealing with real world anxieties. Here he finds himself both dissociating himself from reality but also discovering the fresh currents of creativity that would define his subsequent output. There are also effective peaks at his tumultuous relationship with former band manager father, an emotionally hardened figure only interested in commercial success above all else and whom Wilson could never satisfy.
Dano and Cusack, though very different performers, are equally effective in guiding us into the reverberating deepest chambers of Wilson’s psyche. Dano conveys Wilson’s genius whilst simultaneously laying bear the vulnerabilities of the man as he strove – so often against the grain of his brothers’ thinking – to extract a deeper meaning from the process of song writing. Cusack seems, in his first few scenes, likely to succumb to an overly mannered delivery, yet the idiosyncratic ticks of the drugged-up, lethally controlled older incarnation of Wilson become an increasingly vital part of what is a marvellously subtle, nuanced portrayal. Unafraid to explore the darkness of its subject’s experiences, Love & Mercy reverberates with a veracity too rarely seen in similarly themed, usually overreaching bio-pics.