While his performance here could be transferred, almost without an edit, into the recent Shutter Island (it’s unfortunate timing, basically), his work continues to surprise and fascinate me. I’ve been a fan for a long time, but back in the day, post This Boy’s Life and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, I worried a little bit about him, as I am wont to do with precocious brilliant young actors. He was so good in both those movies. I saw This Boy’s Life, and his last moment, screaming and jumping up and down in his freedom, still has the potential to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. There is such rage in this little boy’s screaming, yet what he is expressing is joy and release. It is a complex difficult moment, and he strolls away with the picture.
Then I saw What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and didn’t realize Artie was played by the same actor I had just seen in This Boy’s Life, and truly thought that the casting team for Gilbert Grape had found a wonderfully talented mentally-challenged young boy to play that part. It’s an astonishing bit of acting, and was even more amazing to me when I realized who it was.
I’m one of those people who loves Titanic, and thought he was wonderful in it, even with the terrible dialogue (“You’re no picnic, Rose. In fact, you’re a spoiled little brat.” Yeesh.), but the mania surrounding that movie again worried me, although fame has certainly been good to DiCaprio. But the darkness he showed he was capable of in those early movies is what drew me to him, his capacity for complexity and non-ingratiating qualities, and I worried that the projects he would be offered post-Titanic would not allow him to show that. Oh me of little faith. I have to believe, however, that his choices post-Titanic were carefully crafted by DiCaprio. He didn’t suddenly start making worthless rom-coms, he didn’t trade on the Tween-Love that went ballistic about him in Titanic, and that was a courageous and interesting move on his part. Not every actor in his position chooses so thoughtfully after achieving world-wide success.
His collaborations with Martin Scorsese have placed him firmly in the pantheon of leading men (I especially liked him in The Departed, although I’m a huge fan of his Howard Hughes as well), and basically he’s one of those actors I always want to see. I was not a fan of Revolutionary Road (the movie, the book is another story entirely), and felt that Sam Mendes, as per usual, chose the wrong focus for Richard Yates’s blistering critique. The demon in Yates’s book is not the suburbs themselves. It is those who feel they are better than the suburbs, who try to distance themselves from their own lives, convinced that they are more interesting, more special, more dynamic. The second I saw that Mendes was directing, I knew exactly what movie he would make, which was a disappointment (in the thought of it, and in the final product). The acting is uniformly excellent, but I felt that DiCaprio, in particular, shone, although Winslet and Michael Shannon got most of the accolades. Di Caprio gave the strongest performance, the most layered. In my estimation, DiCaprio was actually doing “Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road“, as opposed to “Sam Mendes’s Revolutionary Road“, and his portrayal of a weak-willed pent-up man, baffled by the transformation of his wife, and sucker-punched by the limitations his choices have put on him, was devastating to watch. He wanted to believe his wife, when she said to him, “You are the most interesting person I have ever met”, and yet he knows, deep down, that he is not. That he is a conventional person who has made conventional choices, and a bohemian freefall is not for him. It is his tragedy that he cannot communicate that, his own sense of shame and diminishing returns on his potential have balled him up in a world where the Truth cannot be spoken. The Truth is far too threatening to the status quo, and, in the end, his character loves the status quo. And his wife hates him for it. It’s not the suburbs that are the problem, it’s him.
In Inception, as in Shutter Island, DiCaprio plays a man who is (sometimes without even realizing it) on the run not only from his own past, but from self-knowledge itself. He investigates things, it being his job, yet somewhere within him is a strong streak of resistance to finding the answers … because he has a creepy sense that the answers will somehow involve him, and the revelations may be awful.
DiCaprio plays this conflict straight as can be, and it’s an effective persona for him. These films have a Gothic sensibility to some degree, and the “OH MY GOD NOT THE TRUTH” refrain can become a bit tiresome if it’s not utilized subtly and with some gradation of mood. My main problem with Inception was with its lack of gradation, everything. Was. Urgent., and the overall effect of it was a sort of flat-lining. If everything is Important then the story suffers. Shakespeare understood that, trotting out the fools and clowns and bears in the middle of King Lear or Macbeth, to take the edge off the urgency. It helps the story. But DiCaprio is in full charge of himself in Inception, not an easy job, seeing as so much of it was special-effects driven, and his “job” was to stand around looking concerned and heartbroken and intense. He is able, as an actor, to make his love for his dead wife (played by Marion Cotillard) palpable, the loss is present in his every look, his every gesture. This is a wounded man, damaged beyond repair.
But it was his love for his two kids that DiCaprio (not a father in real life) really clicked into, and when the moment comes that a certain shot we keep seeing (the two little kids playing in the grass and then running off-screen, without looking back at him) is put into a context, and we realize what memory that is for him, and what it has meant to him, it’s painful. I heard someone gasp in the theatre at that scene. DiCaprio has a sort of visceral sense of himself (he always has had that; again, I flash back to his rage-joy dance at the end of This Boy’s Life), and he brings that to whatever part he plays. Inception is intellectual (although perhaps not as deep as it thinks it is), and without DiCaprio’s sense of meat-and-potatoes reality, of loss, of urgency (he must get back to his kids), the film wouldn’t be grounded at all. The shots of him looking at his kids, and they show up everywhere, in every dream he has, was repeated throughout the film, and each time, in each different circumstance, you could see DiCaprio jolted by the sight, disturbed, almost like a war veteran having a flashback. Trauma can work that way. DiCaprio plays a man ambushed by his own subconscious. Instead of upping the urgency factor, something that the film seems to want him to do, he underplays, showing flickers of unease, loss, a memory of regret, grief, but he cannot allow himself the luxury of staying in that place, he must move on, only by continuing to move will he have a chance to get back to those two little kids in the grass. DiCaprio’s talent naturally avoids the operatic. It is one of his greatest strengths. The pitfalls for schmaltzy over-acting are everywhere in Inception, and he deftly steps around all of them.
So that when he does go “operatic”, in a crucial flashback when, across an alley many stories up, he watches his wife let go of the windowsill and leap, the response he generates from the audience is earned, earned fair and square. He has not tried to play on us, or work us, he has not tried to manipulate us, or get on our good side. He, the actor, has kept himself in the story, and his horrible scream, helpless, as he watches, but can do nothing, is so powerful that I can hear it in my ears right now. This is the power of the imagination, something DiCaprio has in spades, and one of the most important qualities for an actor to have (obviously). I do not know his process. I do not know how hard it is for him to “believe”, to invest in the imaginary given circumstances. I don’t know if he prefers 30 takes or if he’s a one-take kind of guy. I honestly don’t care, although it would be interesting to learn more. But what I saw in that moment, that horrible anguished scream, his writhing body, because he can do nothing, was an actor leaping into the space of his imagination, the magic “What if” that is the pitfall of many actors: What if this were real? What if I were in this situation? What if I really saw what this character saw?
His response is not belabored or self-congratulatory. It is not portrayed, it is experienced. It is immediate; an explosion of raw, jagged emotional horror. His hands clutching at empty air.