Genius is a hard thing to capture in cinematic terms; the best movies about the men and women who have most indelibly impacted the planet transcend simply showing and telling you about their greatness, and instead find a way to make you see and experience the world as they did.
“Love & Mercy,” a biopic of Brian Wilson, achieves this by shifting inward, turning the pristine beaches, cheery blue skies and inviting palms of Southern California into a prison that reflects the constraints facing an artist possessed to achieve something more than the surf music hits that characterized The Beach Boys’ early output.
The movie takes place during two crucial periods in Wilson’s life: the first, in 1965, when a young Brian (Paul Dano) ends his touring career and begins working on the masterful “Pet Sounds.”
The second, in the early 1980s, finds Brian (John Cusack) a damaged man, under the thumb of therapist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) and consumed by the monstrous internal demons of addiction and over-medication, left engulfed in a shell of distrust and self-loathing.
Director Bill Pohlad and screenwriters Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman produce a concise parallel structure that mirrors the artist’s gradual descent into his troubles with his slow climb away from them. The picture intricately combines the two story lines into a symphony of its own, one that marries the thrilling bursts of creativity that characterized Wilson’s work with the demons lurking in the silence.
The same impulses that inspire Wilson as he storms through the recording studio producing “Pet Sounds” and “Smile” in the film, frantically working with one set of musicians and then another, in scenes possessed with the madness of brilliance, are what cripple him when he can no longer create.
It says a lot that some of the most affecting moments in a movie blessed to feature some of the greatest music ever written are those in which both Brians simply sit in silence, with their eyes closed and the world passing around them.
“Love & Mercy” is about what happens inside of and behind that still, quiet figure, the storminess of the soul and complex interior world of a man who saw and felt the potential for music and beauty in unlikely places and objects where others simply never did.
This is an imposing acting challenge, so the film is fortunate to feature the best performance Dano has ever delivered and some of Cusack’s most engaged work in years. The former evokes the joy of creation alongside nagging despair; you can feel his mind at work as he conceives “Good Vibrations” or fine-tunes “God Only Knows,” as powerfully and inexorably as when he chafes at the restrictions imposed on him. Cusack is convincingly lost in a psychological wilderness; there’s a faraway quality to his work that haunts you. They unify this portrait of a man lost and found, subverting the picturesque scenery and its brilliant sunshine to capture the darkness and the light inside a one-of-a-kind spirit.