Many actors—I don’t know if you can say most, because “most actors” opens up a deep, dark corridor of this country’s soul—go through a period where they hover on the verge. What they hover on the verge of is hard to say; it’s probably best explained by citing people like Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, all the supreme examples of the cultural status that used to be “movie star” but is now something akin to being a head of state. It’s a position of cultural hegemony. (The dynamic with female actors is completely different and far more unfair, so we’ll save that for another time.)
If you’re a young actor with the alchemical blend of good looks, intriguing backstory, legitimate acting skill, emotional and intellectual depth, and ability to keep the paparazzi interested—all of these, surprisingly, are independent qualities—then there will come a point, particularly if you grab hold of or are gifted the lead role in a stupidly high-grossing franchise, where you begin to be considered as a possible “movie star.” This will precede a blitzkrieg of press and publicity, a full investigation of your backstory and romantic entanglements past and present, and probably cause you to do at least one incredibly stupid thing. Created by this scrum will be a figure maybe or maybe not reflective of who you are as a person, but it will become the defining image of you held by both the movie-going public and the moviemaking private, for better or for worse.
This is an important time for LaBeouf, who is 27 years old and possibly great, but seems to mostly have chosen, for his mature roles, ones that most directly contrasted with his childhood achievements.
WHETHER SHIA LABEOUF GOT the better or worse end of the ruler sort of depends on personal preference. LaBeouf, like many others, will always be significantly defined by the fact that people became familiar with him as a child at first; it doesn’t help that he was a particularly goofy child, albeit well-liked, as the star of hijinksy sitcom Even Stevens and outcast-kid paean Holes. After the maelstrom of positive and negative attention that began for LaBeouf about five years ago—beginning right around the time of the first Transformers film and the supremely unnecessary Indiana Jones 2008 edition, and not tailing off until the mildly unnecessary Wall Street sequel had come and quietly gone—LaBeouf had changed the way he existed in the public eye: he became a weird, grumpy, quarrelsome, young, old man who thought he was smarter than most people thought he was. Was he actually smarter than most people thought he was? It doesn’t really matter, because the work that he produced—those unnecessary couple films, the execrable Transformers movies, the quickly forgotten Lawless, and The Company You Keep, which falls into that awkward subcategory of prestige films that end up making about $5 million and going unheard of by apathetic ears—left no impression of any impressive intelligence. After looking at his slate of adult acting, it’s hard to think of LaBeouf as having arrived with even a quarter of the impact he was expected to—none of the films he’s made feel like any indication of what he can or cannot do.
That’s about to change. Charlie Countryman, an American-abroad, hyperstylized romance-thriller, came out last Friday, and Nymphomaniac, the latest from enfant terrible Lars Von Trier that tells the story of a young woman’s sexual awakening and supposedly features real, un-simulated sex, is in post-production. (Did I mention that it features real sex? The kind you see in porn? And occasionally in life? Because it does! Maybe! And Shia LaBeouf is in it! And though it appears that he doesn’t have real sex, other people do!) You probably haven’t heard of Charlie Countryman, and if you have heard of Nymphomaniac, it almost certainly stems from the macabre fascination that’s inevitable when the dude who just made Antichrist decides he’s going to tell the story of the sexual awakening of a woman and then Shia LaBeouf (maybe!) sends in a video of himself having sex with his girlfriend as his way of auditioning. But both should give us a decent chance to reevaluate a question: Is Shia LaBeouf cool?
In Charlie Countryman, LaBeouf looks to have a decent amount of acting to do: opposite Mads Mikkelsen, he has to carry a movie that requires him to somehow curry the audience’s favor as he clearly gets involved in all manner of ridiculous, ill-advised hijinkery in the name of young love. And his presence is striking; he has a stupid ponytail and a ridiculous wardrobe, and it all works for the same reason that so many idiots end up looking good in rags. Charisma is a ridiculous concept, and sometimes it requires a movie like this, one by a first-time director that flies completely under the radar, to truly be exhibited. LaBeouf seems right in Charlie Countryman; it seems right that he is in the film. If it fails, it will be of no particular issue; what failure would even mean for a movie of this small scale is ephemeral on the spectrum of a Shia LaBeouf, anyway. But it’s a reminder that his presence does have some level of significance. It can’t really hurt.
Nymphomaniac is different. Nymphomaniac is LaBeouf’s chance to finally be taken seriously. It won’t be his last chance, but it’s his best yet: the coupling with an auteur director, the unconventional subject matter, and the dark strangeness of it all line up with the time-tested showcase that big actors tend to seek out when they’re trying to make the leap. Brad Pitt has probably made 10 of these movies. (Fittingly, LaBeouf is also slated to star with Pitt in David Ayer’s tank movie, Fury.) If Nymphomaniac is a disaster—more importantly, if LaBeouf is a disaster; if he’s a seething, slimy, uncouth pervert—it will set him back years in his quest to become a person taken seriously. If it works, and if he is a sensually compelling, narratively attractive character—if the audience doesn’t feel like LaBeouf took this role so he could appear to be having sex in front of strangers—then he’ll be in good shape. This is an important time for LaBeouf, who is 27 years old and possibly great, but seems to mostly have chosen, for his mature roles, ones that most directly contrasted with his childhood achievements. But there’s a reason Brad Pitt is the only Brad Pitt.