Dane DeHaan is in the wrong movie this summer. Instead of Valerian, he ought to have done Dunkirk. Christopher Nolan’s war movie is exactly the kind of blockbuster DeHaan has been trying to get into since the start of his career. Instead, his big-budget features have been good movies that can’t access his charisma (Valerian) or bloated, bad ones that don’t do anything for anyone (The Amazing Spider-Man 2). We don’t begrudge any young actor becoming a star — and DeHaan should be! — but this is the wrong approach. I submit a humble request: Dane DeHaan, please stick to indies.
In Valerian, Luc Besson cast DeHaan to get away from the glazed, hyperfit leading-man standard issued by Marvel. “I like the fact that Valerian is not Schwarzenegger. He’s not Iron Man,” Besson told Vulture recently. “He’s not the big guy. Most of the time he’s lucky, sometimes he says stupid things. He is very human.” Valerian and his partner Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are a pair of intergalactic space agents on a recovery mission that goes awry when a species no one has ever heard of captures their commanding officer (Clive Owen). It’s like Star Wars without the daddy issues — not a lot of drama to parse, but it’s fun.
Besson’s right about DeHaan’s appeal: He’s not built like so many other actors of his class, but the humanity that got him hired can only carry so many scenes. It ebbs and flows in Valerian: He’s believable as a bratty lawman ogling Rihanna’s striptease, but less believable when he’s trying to banter with Delevingne. (This isn’t entirely his fault; everyone in Valerian delivers Besson’s dialogue like they’re chewing toffee.) In the bombast of action scenes, however, he deflates right when Valerian’s story needs him to be swashbuckling.
That’s not to say that he lacks swagger. The actor’s eyes are permanently saddled with duffel bags under them, but he’s been surprisingly visceral in previous roles. Kill Your Darlings deploys his charisma in doses that alternate between seductive and unsettling: As Beat poet pal Lucien Carr, he seduces Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), but also manipulates him. It’s a romance mangled with his own boyish confusion. He’s pushing everyone’s buttons, albeit awkwardly. The Carr character is like Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted except a little less certain, a little more confused. Same goes for DeHaan’s performances in Chronicle and Place Beyond the Pines, where he’s quiet, but not necessarily gentle. He might look like a pimply teen late for homeroom, but he’s playing real outsiders — unusual and unnerving — not just mercurial adolescents.
Performances so still and controlled don’t quite scan in the blockbusters DeHaan’s chosen so far. Harry Osborne and Valerian are characters with sex appeal and braggadocious overtones; DeHaan’s whole skill set comes from a subtlety that gets lost if the camera’s not fixed on him. His strongest performance to date was as the teen therapy patient Jesse in HBO’s In Treatment. Playing off of Gabriel Byrne’s controlled, measured performance, DeHaan’s energy was constantly and excitingly in flux. With a flicker, he switched from bragging about sleeping with older men, to fearful of how easy it was to manipulate his adoptive mom, and shaken by the possibility of connecting with his birth parents. There were flashes of rage and immaturity, energy that his work in blockbusters has always lacked.
There’s someone in Hollywood who’s had this same problem, except her blockbusters successfully turned her into an A-list star: Kristen Stewart. The two actors’ presences share an underlying tension that’s released not in flashes of rage, but in pulsing currents. Even with the movie’s melodramatic overtones, Stewart was as out of place in Twilight as DeHaan is in Valerian. Her niche arrived in finding her physicality in stillness: reading mysterious texts in Personal Shopper, sparring with Juliette Binoche in Clouds of Sils Maria, spilling out words in Certain Women.
Even with the explosion of cinematic universes, there are still plenty of young actors who do interesting, rewarding work outside the confines of blockbusters. Perhaps DeHaan could take a page from Paul Dano’s book, or maybe even Michael Cera’s? Remove the effects-heavy, big-budget scripts from the stack, and get back to the kind of roles that made us fall in love with him.