I can’t put into words the feeling I had turning off my TV after watching Love & Mercy. Empowered, enlightened, educated… I learned so much. And I went into the movie simply excited to see Paul Dano and learn a bit more about the Beach Boys. Did I underestimate Mercy? One hundred percent. From the start we are thrust into sensory overload and I loved it. It’s a hectic introduction with documentary-style footage, songs clashing, voices lost in the noise. We come to understand that the star of the movie is Brian Wilson, played fascinatingly by two actors– Dano as 1960’s Wilson and John Cusack as Wilson in the ’80s. At first I was irked the actors didn’t attempt to match their vocal performance, but the differences between the two added to the dramatic before and after of Wilson’s rise to fame. Switching from past to present with minimal transitions (sound bridges, tight white pants) or none at all, Mercy is beautifully disorienting in a way that makes one feel closer to Wilson’s story.
Misdiagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, we get to know Wilson as Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) did– a fragile, over-medicated man dependent on Dr. Eugene Landy (played by an utterly terrifying Paul Giamatti). Wilson is living in a all-white, sterile home with Landy as his legal guardian. It’s hard to disassociate Banks from her quippy persona (Pitch Perfect movies, Realator.com ads) at first, but her performance is what keeps the past and present together, helping us get to know ’80s Wilson while seeing ’60s Wilson in flashbacks. There’s even an interesting use of voiceover throughout Mercy, which only employs Ledbetter’s perspective, but I couldn’t hate it. Meanwhile, Cusack is powerfully vulnerable and retains the curiosity of Wilson post-crisis, but the real star is Dano. Hired without having even sung as part of an audition, Dano masters the vocals, the internal chaos of young Wilson, and the passion for music most evident in the creation of Pet Sounds. In one scene, the camera pans across the studio as multiple instrumentalists rehearse and Dano stares so intensely into the lens, breaking the fourth wall, that rather than feeling jolted from the scene you feel further pulled into a sense of reality. In another breathtaking moment, Wilson finds that when he puts headphones on he begins to hear voices and repeatedly places them on and off his head, panicking. It’s genuinely performed instances like these that give Mercy an almost documentary-style aesthetic. The few moments in which Cusack and Dano overlap are what jolt us from this style, and it’s incredibly worth it (read: bed).
As mentioned previously, Mercy was, more than anything, an educational experience, particularly in the use of sound in film. The sound editing, and sound mixing, is a marvel and allows a viewer to feel relatable to Wilson in a way that couldn’t be achieved by visuals or performance alone. The sounds bring us into Wilson’s world, and mind, in a variety of ways, discordant and loud and troubling but so perfectly arranged. Never have I seen a movie so powerful thanks to its noise. I’ve also never seen a movie with so many turtlenecks.