Quietly and unexpectedly, Matt Damon has become the premier Hollywood actor of the past decade. He’s lent his minutely constructed, surprisingly athletic performances to the films of directors Steven Soderbergh, Gus Van Sant, Paul Greengrass, Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood, a roster that’s not coincidentally produced some of the most vital and successful films of the past ten years.
His remarkable career isn’t simply a matter of a good agent. It’s all in the manner in which he so carefully adapts his particular skills to the roles.
Damon’s commitment is displayed on his body, which he relentlessly crafts to the specifications of each character — he’s almost the anti-movie star in his physical malleability. Take a look at how he changes from “The Bourne Identity” in 2002 to the Farrelly Brothers’ “Stuck On You,” a year later. In the former, he carved himself down to muscle and bone, a tightly packed bundle of paranoia and frightening physicality. For the latter, he packed on a paunch, with his granite Bourne-head turned into a model of doughy affability. He managed a similar weight gain more recently between 2007’s “The Bourne Ultimatum” and this year’s “The Informant!”, and as the latter film’s Mark Whitacre, he achieves his most finely modulated performance underneath layers of fat and a fake nose.
These types represent the two poles of Damon’s preferred personas: withdrawn nebbishes or moody muscular specimens. The first group would include the “Ocean’s” franchise, “Stuck On You,” “The Good Shepherd,” and “The Informant!”. The second contains “All the Pretty Horses,” the “Bourne” franchise, “The Departed” and the forthcoming “Invictus.” “Gerry” lies somewhere in between. But each extreme utilizes his physicality, with his literally weighty roles emphasizing the slapstick and satire of uncooperative bodies instead of the precise control of his action work. Even in “The Good Shepherd,” Damon buries himself in a trenchcoat and wire-rimmed glasses, eschewing parody but emphasizing his CIA analyst’s passivity and hyper-intellectualism.
The effectiveness of Damon’s portrayals isn’t simply achieved by his physicality, however, but by the subtle variations and tics he works into them. In taking on Bob Tenor, the conjoined twin in “Stuck On You,” he ably pulls off a number of ridiculous pratfalls, like being caught in a bus door, but incorporates a number of quiet gestures to convey the inner life of the character. Bob is the blue-collar nice guy to his rakish twin Walt (Greg Kinnear), and Damon lifts Bob out of cliché with a series of small moves. First is his posture, which is pitched forward as he holds his arms limp at his sides — a look of constant un-readiness, of a guy just waiting to be punched. He adds a backing-in, scuttling crab walk, a pinched sing-song delivery and a penchant for shutting his eyes before speaking to complete the vision of a man simply wanting to disappear.
Damon takes a similarly detailed approach to his signature role, Jason Bourne. It’s a streamlined take that only begins with the weight trainer. He deadens his voice and clips his delivery into staccato bursts, the mark of a man only concerned with how to stay alive for the next five minutes. He stands ramrod straight, and bores holes into people’s eyes, rarely blinking. It’s a coiled readiness that’s the inverse of Bob’s closed-off vulnerability. In fight or flight scenes, he pistons his arms and legs down with mechanical regularity, bulldozing through crowds with the same speed as director Paul Greengrass’ edits. His entire character is defined by forward motion — if he stops, he dies, so regardless of bullet wounds or broken bones, he wills himself ahead. His is an action hero that bleeds. This kind of blunt physicality and relentless pacing set the tone for the entire decade’s worth of action films, lifted most successfully for the new Daniel Craig cycle of James Bond movies.
There’s always the presence of fleshly mortality in Damon’s work, from Bourne’s elusive brushes with death to the decadent decay of Mark Whitacre’s middle-aged body. It’s present most explicitly in “Gerry,” Gus Van Sant’s artistic throat-clearer after he hit bottom with “Finding Forrester.” Retrenching in Bela Tarr mode with long takes and oblique storytelling, it paved the way for the layered triumphs of “Elephant,” “Last Days” and “Paranoid Park.” That Damon was at the center of the blockbusting “Bourne” and “Ocean’s” franchises as well as Van Sant’s revival speaks to his wide-ranging tastes and apparent dismissal of highbrow/lowbrow distinctions.
He and Casey Affleck play wandering fools both named Gerry, who drift around Utah’s national parks after their car breaks down. They exchange opaque bits of improvised dialogue as they slowly dehydrate and collapse in the salt flats. Damon lopes through the movie with a self-confidence verging on psychosis, as the pair’s attempts at re-orienting themselves devolve into childish game playing. Their faith in play, re-shaping words and actions into little blackout sketches, is unerring until the last desperate shot of the duo, caked with dust and dying by the side of the road. As drama, it’s thin, but it works as a laid-back comedy with a commentary on how performance can generate (and annihilate) identity. It’s also an eccentric forebearer to what A.O. Scott has termed American neo-neo-realism, the long-take, location-shot dramas of Kelly Reichardt, Ramin Bahrani, Lance Hammer and So Yong Kim.
Damon’s work in “The Informant!” extends his interest in performance and self-delusion, but in the withdrawn nebbish mode. Mark Whitacre’s body is a walking punchline, a marvel of ill-fitting suits, manicured mustaches and rapidly expanding waistlines. He’s literally coming apart at the seams physically before he does it psychologically. The whistleblower who brought down a price-fixing scheme at Archer Daniels Midland, Whitacre is also a classic American overachiever, raking in millions from an embezzlement scheme that he kept a secret from everyone, including himself. He proliferated so many lies he began to believe some of them, almost willing himself into bipolar disorder. Director Steven Soderbergh emphasizes the man’s duality through his use of voiceover, which features Whitacre’s perplexing digressions, constantly veering away from personal revelations to ponder the weather, food prices and polar bears.
Damon’s voice is slightly nasal, flat and disarmingly vulnerable. He’s at pains to make everyone love him, but his anxiety seeps in at the edges through his constant fidgeting with his glasses, his slightly stooped walk and the furtive tugs at his delicately poofy wig. It’s a finely wrought performance, which slowly reveals Whitacre’s duplicity while never abandoning the character’s pathos. He’s an eminently likable pathological liar, a seemingly transparent dope who hides his pain in nervous twitches and brief explosions of self-doubt. His hesitation when an FBI agent uncovers his letter forgery is quietly devastating. You can see Damon’s eyes scan back and forth, looking to construct another rhetorical defense, but he’s finally pushed past his breaking point, and even his voiceover collapses and tells the truth: he didn’t have any answers.
Yet up until this point in his career, Matt Damon seemed to have all of them. Off the success of the “Bourne” franchise, he’s been able to write his own ticket, working only with the directors he wants. This has led to an improbable string of smart, multifaceted turns that reveal an actor of precise physical control and dense emotional shading, whose action heroes are given the same detailed treatment as his indie film grotesques, all of which are at the center of the most influential films of the decade. He’s a subtle miniaturist who also happens to be a gigantic star, a rare and wonderful thing.
[Additional photos: “Gerry,” THINKFilm, 2003; “The Informant!,” Warner Bros., 2009]