The Body has Tides
There is a scene in You Can Count on Me where Mark Ruffalo's character sits in the bath and we see his hairy chest and un-worked out body. When Tom Shone in an interview with the actor in The Guardian says he is the opposite of Tom Cruise, this is exactly what he might mean, especially if we compare the moment in the bath with Cruise's reefer madness scene with Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut. Here Cruise is hairless and buffed like the wrestler he once was, looking throughout like someone asked to pose in his underwear; a semi-nudity entirely self-conscious - a life model on his first assignment. The scene might be a private moment between a married couple, but it is as though Kubrick knew he was working with so self-aware an actor that he wanted to match it with the self-awareness of a blue/red lighting schema that would make the entire sequence artificial. Casting Cruise in the role Kubrick gets not a scene of married intimacy, but the sort of abstraction the director usually goes in search of. Kubrick is a higher case director interested in Marriage, War, Space, Freedom and Lust. Cruise fits into the higher case Kubrick demands of him, with the director accepting perhaps that there is no point using Cruise for realism; that finally Cruise wasn't miscast but cast entirely appropriately. In the bath scene in You Can Count on Me, the lighting is simple, naturalistic.
It is in keeping with the nature of Ruffalo's demeanour, a ruffled, messy inability to do the right thing whilst usually working with the best of motives. When he meets up with his sister again after some months away from his hometown, she turns up smartly attired, while Ruffalo's character wears a worn and tatty T-shirt. He wonders if she's been working and she says that it is Saturday; she just wanted to dress smartly because her brother being back in town is a special occasion. Looking at Ruffalo on paper his character could be a monster. He leaves a girlfriend who then attempts suicide, he beats up the father of his sister's child, failed to keep in touch with his sister while he spent some time in jail, and seems to arrive back in town only when he needs something. When at one moment he mentions that he won't be staying; that he's back home because he ran out of money, his sister says she wished she had sent him an invoice.
Ruffalo is a fine example of an actor giving flesh to a character, not only in taking a bath without getting in shape for the scene, nor only in behaviour that we might call problematic, but also doing sex scenes that capture the body in primal motion: it is this sense of the earthy that makes Ruffalo's characters human rather than monstrous, full of feeling rather than coldly calculating. He is a great actor not of seduction, for example, but of immediate lust. "I've done a lot of sex scenes, for good or bad, in my career. It's very hard to capture that sort of awkwardness; a lot of people don't want that human quality. It's too well lit or choreographed. Sex is not the most elegant thing between human beings. We dip right back into caveman times, you know?"
Ruffalo's characters are those for whom life is never easy; the emotional complexity always pulls in different directions. The fight Ruffalo gets into in You Can Count on Me with his sister's ex is emotionally justified even if socially messy. One afternoon Ruffalo takes his nephew along to get his father to acknowledge his existence, only for the father to claim the boy might not even be his, and they should both get off his land. We're with Ruffalo as he gives the dad a beating, just as we're perhaps with his character earlier in the film when Ruffalo says he's got to get away from his clingy girlfriend, but these are not readily self-righteous actions; they are righteous, but ambivalently so.
Ruffalo is great on showing that life is chaos. His face registers not singular emotions but mixed ones: he isn't an actor of narrative direction, but emotional nuance. Ruffalo's character in The Kids are Alright might say at one moment that he loves his restaurant and this is what he wants to concentrate on right now, but the film's interest rests in creating conflicts much greater than any goals. Ruffalo plays a forty year old sperm donor whose kids come calling after the girl turns eighteen and her younger brother also wants to know who their father is. At the beginning he is a cool, motorcyclist with a beautiful and casual girlfriend and a trendy restaurant. By the end of the film he is someone whose life has turned inside out as he desperately wants to become part of something bigger than his own existence. After starting an affair with one of the kids' mums (they're lesbians), he announces that he loves Julianne Moore's character, but does he really love her or is he realizing that he wants to be part of a larger world than his own?
Ruffalo's characters frequently have arcs rather than goals; yet at the same time there is a stalled maturity in both You Can Count on Me and The Kids are Alright. Often a clear character arc turns someone from feckless to mature, greedy to selfless. In both films Ruffalo resists the arcing without denying the possibilities of transformation, or perhaps better - reformation. Ruffalo's face captures the feelings of someone trying to do the right thing, but clearly making a hash of it. When he starts an affair with Moore's character in The Kids Are Alright, this is Ruffalo getting in touch with a yearning to be part of a family, but he is also in the process damaging the one he wants to be part of. Yet in neither The Kids are Alright nor You Can Count on Me can we say Ruffalo's actions are especially bad, just as by the end of either film could we claim he has especially evolved. Perhaps at the end of You Can Count on Me he can be counted on a little bit more than at the start of the film; at the end of The Kids Are Alright, he won't be able to say again that he wants to put all his energy into the restaurant. But equally, we wouldn't be surprised if he continues to make an emotional mess of his life. It is what Ruffalo's characters do well: messy well-meaningfulness.
In XX/XY again on paper he doesn't look so good. He cheats on his girlfriend in the first half of the film and then cheats on his partner with the ex-girlfriend ten years later, and lies to his partner about it when she asks him. Another filmmaker working with a less 'real' actor would probably have put the moral justification into the script, yet instead Ruffalo's partner is presented as sympathetic, aware of events around her and with plenty of understanding for a man who claims he doesn't entirely believe in love. The reason she realises why he believes this is that the ex was the love of his life, and the least she wants from him is the truth. Ruffalo's character can't quite provide it, but this isn't the deceitful man, but the troubled figure well aware that in life feelings can move in different directions simultaneously. Early in the film when he cheats on his girlfriend, it comes after he asks his girlfriend if they could spend the night in. She wants to take drugs and go clubbing every night: he wants them to spend some quality time together. She's reluctant and so he leaves her apartment and finds affection elsewhere. When he cheats on his partner it is after he invites his ex (whom he's recently bumped into after ten years apart), back to the flat, and they start getting passionate. Obviously some might say the film makes it easy for us to empathise with Ruffalo's character because he asks his girlfriend to spend time alone with him in the first part of the film, and doesn't quite know why he has invited her round to his apartment where they end up having sex in the second half. While in the former instance the film makes Ruffalo sympathetically hurt, and in the latter subconsciously ambivalent, it is chiefly the actor's capacity to register hurt and confusion that allows us to retain fellow feeling for a man who has not acted well.
This confusion and hurt lies partly in Ruffalo's eyes and partly in his voice. They both possess a beseeching quality that asks for comprehension of feeling. This isn't a quality in an actor as common as one might think. Many actors command space rather than share feeling: their purpose is to be charismatically in control of their own territory, with many a film playing on the conflict between characters egotistically in competition with each other even in a relationship, let alone in deliberately conflictive situations like in a stand off in a western, or the conflicts between different levels of command in a war film. Many a screwball comedy plays on this notion of emotional competitiveness, from Adam's Rib to His Girl Friday. They bring to mind a Truman Capote comment where he says in love there is always an element of envy. Cary Grant, Tom Cruise, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Barbra Streisand, Paul Newman and numerous others are all actors of what we could call emotional competitiveness. But there are other actors given to emotional receptiveness: Ingrid Bergman, Marlon Brando, Maria Bello and Ruffalo are actors who seem to live in a world of feeling more than action, of emotional need over egotistical drive. They are actors who do not have love interest like Steve McQueen, or John Wayne: love is their interest. In Ruffalo's key roles, in The Kids are Alright, You Can Count on Me, (the limited but interesting) In The Cut, XX/XY, We Don't Live Here Anymore etc. drive has little place. He might own a restaurant in The Kids Are Alright, but there is almost no interest on the film's part in it as an going narrative concern: the film is interested only in Ruffalo's emotional confusion. In You Can Count on Me he is without employment; in XX/XY he is in filmmaking but its role in his life plays up his dissatisfaction.
His parts in both In the Cut and Reservation Road are probably too narratively focused to create much space for the nuances Ruffalo can offer. Both are 'baddie roles', villains in the sense that they elicit not the mixed emotions of The Kids are Alright and You Can Count on Me, but in the first instance an assumption of guilt and in the second a confrontation with it. In Jane Campion's In the Cut, Ruffalo is the foul-mouthed cop having an affair with Meg Ryan's literary lecturer, and though by the end of the film he turns out to be a good guy and his cop partner the murderer, most of the way he has to play someone who is probably the bad guy. It is only in bed where Ruffalo gets to offer tenderness and proves to be a marvellous lover. Ryan asks him where he learnt certain sexual techniques that drive her crazy. In Reservation Road he is guilt-stricken after running over a young boy and driving off. At the end of the film he is confronted by the boy's father and after wrestling the gun from the dad turns it on himself, ready to die. "I'm dead already", he insists. In Campion's film Ruffalo is the psychological void he is required to be for the purposes of the thriller story. We need to play guessing games with his behaviour, thinking he may well be the murderer. In Reservation Road he is the reverse; someone whose psychology is all too present as he guiltily wonders whether he will be found out; whether he should own up to his crime.
Now of course there are great instances of clearly guilty and guilt-ridden protagonists in film and literature: works that tackle the culpability of a soul after committing a crime, whether it is Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart or Bresson's Pickpocket. But what we are suggesting here is that Ruffalo is an actor of small emotions, of everyday treacheries and emotional foibles. It is important in You Can Count on Me that his ex attempted to kill herself - if she did so the film would have become too focused on Ruffalo's guilt, where what the film wants to explore through his character is closer to emotional culpability. The possibility that he might be the killer in In The Cut, the idea that he is so guilty in Reservation Road that he is dead anyway, don't allow room for the small emotions.
In his scriptwriting manual, Story, Robert McKee says "People are not what they appear to be. A hidden nature waits concealed behind a faade of traits. No matter what they say, no matter how they comfort themselves, the only way we ever come to know characters in depth is through their choices under pressure." By this reckoning Ruffalo's character in Reservation Road should be more revealing than his characters in You Can Count on Me,XX/XY and The Kids Are Alright, but we find that isn't the case. Now this isn't at all to offer a blanket claim that McKee is wrong; otherwise why the significance of Greek tragedy, for example, where events are of immense magnitude: Medea killing her children; Oedipus sleeping with his mother and killing his father? But often because of the nature of Ruffalo's acting, the small emotions are better explored than the bigger ones. If the ex-girlfriend in You Can Count on Me did kill herself, then all the emotional hassles Ruffalo deals with in the rest of the film would be irrelevant - they would be subordinated to the overriding emotion of guilt, as we find the small actions are of little relevance in Reservation Road. But her attempted suicide reveals Ruffalo's character for the half-hearted figure he is, but doesn't give him an especially big emotion to carry through the entire film. It leaves lots of room for the nuanced feelings evident in the scene where he decides he won't take his nephew fishing with him because his sister has been aggrieved by his behaviour. She says it is not fair to punish her son for the tensions between them, and such a scene would have no value if Ruffalo were nursing a great guilt. This is also true of the scene where Ruffalo beats up his sister's ex: it is another example of Ruffalo acting with good motives but inept actions. It would make little sense if the girlfriend had committed suicide - his culpability would have been greater than the man who merely sired a child that he won't take responsibility for.
In Reservation Road the lack of nuance leaves Ruffalo with a countenance too unvarying to be of interest. When he talks into the video camera explaining and exploring his feelings of guilt, Ruffalo's gestures are so singular that they offer no behavioural suspense. In Creating a Role, Stanislavski interestingly differentiates between three types of plays. In the first type - "poor comedies, melodramas, vaudeville, revues, farces" - it is "the external plot [that] represents the principal asset of the performance. In such works the very facts of a murder, a death, a wedding...all such facts constitute the principal moments of the production." In other plays like Chekhov's, "facts are needed to the extent that they provide motivation and occasion for revealing the inner content...in such plays it is not the facts but the attitude of the characters toward them that provides the fulcrum." But Stansilavski notes in the best plays of all, "form and content are in direct relationship with each other; then the life of the spirit is indivisible from the facts and the plot", and gives Othello as an example. Perhaps if Stanislavski is right then the former works require an actor a little like Tom Cruise, the Chekhovian piece someone like Ruffalo, and the Shakespearian a figure like Paul Scofield. In an article on acting in The Guardian, David Hare mentions Simon Callow on Scofield. "For Callow, Scofield is the supreme actor because his essential gift, even in his harshest roles, was for intimating something secret, something almost beyond the spectator's reach. Preeminently as King Lear, Scofield seemed not just to comprehend the world's injury better than the audience, but also to carry its bruises deeper inside him." In this sense Reservation Road maybe wants to be weightily tragic as Ruffalo wrestles with his conscience, but Ruffalo in the best sense of the term is too lightweight an actor for such tussles. To try to wrestle with one's soul when what an actor is best at is the hassles of life means that you lose the texture and don't gain in depth. When Callow reckons Scofield carries the world's bruises deeper inside himself than other actors, this is possible through the body and the voice. Scofield's voice is sonorous and deep; Ruffalo's wavering and light. His voice is perfectly pitched for modest tribulation, relatively minor despair.
In The Kids Are Alright, Ruffalo is going through an early mid-life crisis brought on by the awareness that he has two kids he has never known until now. As he becomes part of the lesbian couple's family, and gets to know the kids, so he feels the relative emptiness of his own life. While at the beginning he seems the perfectly detached forty year old guy with his slick and successful restaurant and his beautiful, casually committed, girlfriend, by the end of the film he is aware that he wants more from life than what he has settled for thus far. There is nothing tragic here, however: one might see it as no more than a wake-up call, an opportunity to reassess his life and make the necessary changes. He is young enough, good-looking enough, wealthy enough and presumably fertile enough for plenty opportunities for a family of his own. There is no sense of catastrophic waste, which is partly why by the end of the film he comes across as a comic figure more than a tragic one. When he declares on the phone to Julianne Moore that he is in love with her and she cuts him off mid-conversation as she attends to more important issues within the family, the moment elicits from the audience a laugh. This is Moore and the film's way of saying let us get a sense of perspective on this: Ruffalo is hurting but his pain is that of someone who needs a reality check. This is hardly weighty anagnorosis, the tragic sense of a realization too late, evident in Oedipus Rex or King Lear. It is no more and no less than sub-anagnorosis - a moment of truth certainly (anagnorisis is Greek for recognition), but a realisation that perhaps the fun-loving, easy-going, laid back and non-commital Ruffalo may be looking for a modicum of meaning. The biokids give him that; but while he may never be more than a fringe member here doesn't mean he can't go on to a become a centrepiece in his own existence.
What we're suggesting is that Ruffalo is a very good actor not of tragic emotions but mixedones, a good example of Virginia Woolf's phrase in Mrs Dalloway - "the body has tides". InXX/XY, The Kids Are Alright and You Can Count on Me he is a character of indecision. Who should he be with in XX/XY - his partner or the former lover? In The Kids are Alright should he start thinking about incorporating others into his life? In You Can Count on Me, how is he going to start taking responsibility? These are all life decisions, but there is still a sense by the end that life is in front of him rather than behind him. Though the protagonist in Reservation Road is in some ways a typical Ruffalo character - he is in a state of indecision over whether to confess to the hit and run accident - he is also someone who cannot deny the irrevocability of an action. Ruffalo is often at his most interesting being no more than irresponsible, where a girlfriend attempts but does not succeed in committing suicide in You Can Count on Me, where an affair may compromise a marriage in XX/XY but where there are no kids to worry about, or in The Kids are Alright where he slams into his forties and all sorts of questions start getting asked.
An actor is always his body and his voice, and while of course there are plenty instances of actors being dubbed with the voice of another (Enrique Irazoqui in Pasolini's The Gospel According to St Matthew, Andie McDowell in Greystoke), and examples of actors so made up they are unrecognizable (John Hurt in The Elephant Man, Charlize Theron in Monster) usually the actor works with what they have. Ruffalo has tender eyes and a wavering, slightly nasal delivery. This is perfect for the sort of small-scale deceit evident near the end of XX/XY, where his wife confronts him with the affair he has been having. As he says to her, "what are you talking about", she tells him to "shut your fucking mouth" as she takes control of the situation and leaves Ruffalo's voice weakly defending itself.
In We Don't Live Here Anymore, a film we have thus far only name-checked. again Ruffalo is adulterous, yet with more at risk. Here he is having an affair with a friend and colleague's wife in a university town. The wife is still angry and hurting over an affair her husband has had in the past, while Ruffalo is no longer in love with his wife (Laura Dern). Or is he? Near the end of the film after his own wife has a brief fling with his lover's husband, he more or less says that he doesn't care: he is in love with the man's wife, Edith, played by Naomi Watts. Yet the next day he decides he doesn't want to leave. Dern assumes it is for the kids but he insists it is for her as well. It is as though all the complicity he has built up with Watts evaporates in the face of the truth he finally tells. By admitting to his wife that he loves Watts, he can now once again love Dern.
In most of the films we've mentioned, Ruffalo plays superficially selfish and self-absorbed characters, but he is an actor who can give to such individuals the individualistic that gives singularity to a self. At one moment in We Don't Live Here Anymore he takes a few puffs of a cigarette before going running with his friend and colleague. Afterwards he runs onto the road and stomps all over the cigarette proclaiming that he will stop smoking. It is a great moment of self-abasement in the face of a weak will determined to be stronger. During the run he flashes back to moments of love-making with Watts, and then at the end of the run vomits, ostensibly because his colleague is the better runner and he's pushed himself too hard, but also probably because he wanted to push himself so hard to punish his own body. Ruffalo here is not a character at peace with himself, but this inner turmoil is so much more suited to his persona than the crisis of the character in Reservation Road. As in You Can Count on Me, XX/XY, and The Kids Are Alright it is, for all its seriousness, a revocable crisis. Sure the adultery has been committed, but the marriage can be saved: what makes the film interesting are the variables available to a character trying to make decisions that work for him emotionally, sexually and morally. These options are threefold; where Reservation Road only has the one: how to deal with the guilt of killing a young boy and fleeing from the accident.
This is hardly to attack irrevocable drama of course. But it is to say that Ruffalo's significance as an actor does not lie in the tragic, but instead in the predicament. Even in Margaret, where he has a small role as a bus driver who accidentally goes through a red light and runs a woman over, it is the predicament that counts. When the film's central character who was distracting him while he was driving tries later to get him to accept his responsibility for the deed, he couches it in terms of personal predicament: who will look after his wife and kids if he's in prison he says to the teenager. Ruffalo plays the part as if a man who doesn't feel he killed someone (unlike in Reservation Road): the teenager had earlier claimed the light was green and not red when the bus ran the woman over. He might feel bad but has nothing to feel irrevocably guilty about, and indeed the film is about the teenager's need to place the blame on somebody else because she can't quite accept that the person most responsible for the accident is her: for distracting the driver in the first place.
Now the word predicament is too weak a word to describe the irrevocable, the tragedy that has already taken place, but predicament suits well a conflict of choice or the weakness of will. His affair in We Don't Live Here Anymore isn't only an act of passion it is also a failure of will power, and can perhaps be differentiated slightly from the affair his character has in XX/XY. In the latter, years before Ruffalo's character and the love of his life have split up due to a series of misunderstandings; and meet up again a decade later. By now Ruffalo is already married, but it is clear in exchanges between Ruffalo and his partner, where she talks of Ruffalo not really believing in love, that he has never quite got over his ex from all those years earlier. When the ex and Ruffalo start having sex in his apartment this isn't only a failure of will (cheating on his wife), it also a very basic recapturing of a past passion: this past lover is clearly the significant ex. Naomi Watts in We Don't Live Here Anymore is more part of a frustrated life than a rekindling of a past passion, la XX/XY. In We Don't Live Here Anymore, Ruffalo needs to keep the affair with Watts a secret partly it would seem to sustain the lust. The moment he tells his wife he loves Edith he can start once again to love Dern. In XX/XY, though, we may wonder if he still loves the ex does it mean, though he also loves his wife, that he has never quite been in love with her; whether the ex has always overshadowed any feelings he has for the woman he married. In We Don't Live Here Anymore it is more the other way round. His character has married the right woman but the magic has gone, and he tries to recapture it with Edith as if somehow the pleasure principle is his right, and his marriage secondary to it.
In all Ruffalo's most interesting films the questions are basically existential but without undue weight; they are about issues of choice almost in the Sartrean sense expressed in The Age of Reason. "He had never been able to engage himself completely in any love affair, or any pleasure, he had never been really unhappy; he always felt as though he were somewhere else, that he was not yet wholly born." If in a film like Reservation Road the question is almost to be or not to be, as Ruffalo asks the father of the son he has killed whether he should go ahead and kill himself, in The Kids are Alright, XX/XY, We Don't Live Here Anymore and You Can Count on Me, the question is simply how to be. In You Can Count on Me Ruffalo's character is neither emotionally evolved nor materially successful: he's a decent guy so evidently displayed in the contrast between Ruffalo and the ex of his sister whom he beats up. In The Kids are Alright he is a man of material success but perhaps emotional immaturity, as he embarks on an affair with Moore and all too quickly believes he is in love. In XX/XY he lives of past emotional glories, and in We Don't Live Here Anymore he can't commit to the wife to whom he is already married. However, it would be erroneous to assume Ruffalo is unsympathetic because of the behaviour he shows, and this is because of the existential nature of the predicaments.
Often we might think of the term anti-hero to describe characters whose actions are not especially sympathetic but hardly villainous: as if the hero and villain are contained within the one character. But while Jack Nicholson in some of his great seventies roles like Five Easy Pieces, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Carnal Knowledge, maybe The Passenger, was an anti-hero, Ruffalo seems more of an everyman figure. Where Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces can leave his lover at the end of the film at a gas station, and ends up impotent after screwing and dumping numerous women in Carnal Knowledge, and is incarcerated in Cuckoo's Nest for statutory rape, Ruffalo's are the foibles of the quotidian. This is not quite existential despair but existential choice; the prosaic emotional crisis that demands no bigger void need suggest itself. If Nicholson during that great exploratory period is a much more significant actor than Ruffalo, it rests in that third category Stanislavski invokes and that Callow believes Scofield was such a master of. This is the crisis that goes deeper than one person's situation and hints at an abyss beyond the character. In a number of Nicholson's early to mid-seventies films he was trying to be true to a self slightly beyond the social; Ruffalo is an actor whose truths reside within the social. He is an everyman trying to cope with life; not an outsider looking to create new rules beyond it.
Yet there is certainly a place for the everyman in a cinema where character is so often hyperbolized and films do not go in the direction of the void (as in the great Nicholson or De Niro roles; the Stansislavskian third category) but towards the action (as in Stanislavski's idea of the entertainment). In such instances everyman becomes exaggerated as the marital crisis of a Bruce Willis (Die Hard) or an Arnold Schwarzenegger (True Lies) gets sublimated into action set-pieces, never more exemplified than in Mr and Mrs Smith with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Ruffalo's low key attempt to grapple with the emotionally immediate seems almost fresh initself. Perhaps flagging up Ruffalo's significance in contemporary cinema is at the same time to point out its numerous weaknesses. Wouldn't Ruffalo have been just one of many exploratory actors of the seventies working loosely within the Stanislasvkian second category, an actor not quite of the importance of De Niro, Nicholson or maybe Pacino or Hackman, but equivalent to Richard Dreyfuss, George Segal, Elliott Gould or Donald Sutherland?
Yet none of the comparisons quite fit, which indicates that though there is little to suggest Ruffalo is a great actor, there is much that shows he is a fresh one. Maybe it resides somewhere in his comment about sex scenes, and his insistence that these are awkward moments capturing the messiness of life. Indeed the strength of Ruffalo lies also in the broader weaknesses of a culture that has been depoliticised. In Ruffalo's finest films there is no political dimension, no broader comprehension of the political than the personal, and no sense that one is fighting against society but only chiefly against oneself. Many seventies actors' performances seemed to contain within them a social problem that generated the personal. If Ruffalo is an actor of his moment it lies in that essential depoliticisation. But by the same token next to the hyperbolised emotion of so many contemporary actors where the personal becomes an issue of action, Ruffalo's gift for keeping the emotional event locally focused is a skill of some minor import.
© Tony McKibbin