Movies

NYMPHOMANIAC: The Three Faces of Shia LaBeouf

Unpopular opinion alert: I enjoy Shia LaBeouf.

Notice that I chose my words carefully.  I’m not sure if I “like” LaBeouf.  It’s a strong word to use for an admitted plagiarist and Franco-esque performance artist who picks fights with his co-workers.  But the animus for LaBeouf the person sadly overwhelms the very real talents of LaBeouf the actor.

LaBeouf has a key role to play in Lars Von Trier’s two-part Nymphomaniac saga as Jerôme, a partner who keeps turning up like a bad penny and causes the movie’s sex-compulsive protagonist to constantly rewire her brain.  It’s a tricky character – in fact, an implausibly contrived one that only turns up in movies, as another character points out – but LaBeouf makes it work through sheer determination.

I know this because I have seen him win over an audience, most recently at a critics’ screening of Nymphomaniac.  There were titters and groans when LaBeouf first popped up as the shaggy-haired, moped-riding bad boy who inelegantly takes the virginity of 15-year-old Joe (Stacy Martin).  But by the time he returned as an overeager yuppie and, later, as a troubled married man, the laughter had stopped.  Though part of that was due to Von Trier’s penchant for gradually increasing audience discomfort, some of the turnaround can be attributed to LaBeouf’s gifts of natural charisma and the fully-developed screen presence of an actor 10 years his senior.

In honor of his tripartite appearance in Nymphomaniac, here is my best explanation/defense of the man in all three of his cinematic (and sometimes real-world) guises.

Face #1: The Fraudulent Tough Guy

Jerôme initially appeals to Joe because of his “sophistication,” which mostly centers on the fact that he’s old enough to own and drive a moped.  But as he fails to fix his sputtering machine before and after their brief encounter, Jerome sets himself up for the scene’s cheerfully emasculating button, as Joe simply twists a single bolt to make the bike’s engine purr once more.

The parallel to Mutt Williams from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is almost too obvious: motorcycle-riding delinquent has an immediate negative impact on the protagonist’s life and is not nearly as clever as he thinks.  There are shades of this version in so many of LaBeouf’s roles, even comedic ones like his guest spot on Freaks and Geeks as an injured school mascot who talks up the inherent danger of the position to his replacement, before gently nodding off in a concussion-induced slumber.

Face #2: The Bumbling Man-Child

Somewhat related to the Fraudulent Tough Guy, but typically cut from a more sympathetic cloth.  This is pure Transformers territory right here.  Say what you want about Michael Bay’s filmmaking, but LaBeouf plays the overmatched misfit perfectly.  He’s the onscreen equivalent of the guy spinning plates on a variety show, purposely letting them wobble to increase tension: just watch the first Transformers film, particularly the scene in which he’s attempts to shoo the Autobots away from his parents’ house.

A lot of his Even Stevens work belongs here, even if he was technically more of a child-man back then; the teenaged Alfred Hitchcock pastiche Disturbia is also an interesting exploration of this persona.  It pops up in Nymphomaniac when Jerôme enjoys a short stint as a bigwig at his uncle’s publishing company, abusing his kernel of power to draw Joe closer to him, only for her to reject his (admittedly creepy) advances.  We all but see the cartoon steam whistle out of Jerôme’s ears, and we feel his flop sweat as he fruitlessly tries to make the now-liberated Joe interested in him again.

Face #3: The Genuine Affect

Years spent as a child star have turned LaBeouf into a very mannered actor – hence the effort poured into looking “edgy” – but when harnessed in the right role it can be fantastic, even revelatory.  There are flashes of this in Nymphomaniac: as the film progresses, Jerôme is certainly more confident in his interactions with Joe, even if the outcome of their reunion is ambiguous at best, calamitous at worst.

The mainstream offers better examples, notably the pint-sized hero of Holes and the conflicted moonshiner in John Hillcoat’s Prohibition drama Lawless.  In the latter, an unsparing film filled with subtle beauty and brilliant performances from the likes of Jessica Chastain and Tom Hardy, LaBeouf is the movie’s throbbing heart.  Combining aspects of all three “faces” as junior bootlegging partner Jack Bondurant, LaBeouf is pathetic, arrogant, vulnerable, admirable, and deeply human.

An actor can survive for a long time in Hollywood off little more than charisma and a solid onscreen persona, even when his personal life seems a mess and his career has become a punchline.  LaBeouf’s trajectory – precocious talent, then wandering the wilderness – is similar to another actor we all joked about for a long time.  But I didn’t hear anyone laughing as Matthew McConaughey hoisted his Oscar last month.  (Ok, maybe at the part where he identified himself as his hero.)  Could LaBeouf get there too someday?  It all depends on which face he’s willing to show us.

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The Author

Eric Ambler

Eric Ambler

Eric Ambler is a film critic and correspondent for Screen Invasion, as well as the founder of Ambler Amblog (https://ambleramblog.blogspot.com/). His parents named him after a Welsh spy novelist they found in a reference book. Someday he will get around to watching all the VHS tapes he bought at Goodwill.