great performances

The Radical Self-Sufficiency of Mia Wasikowska

Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Spoilers for Damsel below.

Mia Wasikowska has never allowed herself to be miscast, but in the new Western Damsel, she plays a woman who’s got no choice in the matter. The first half or so of the film follows well-to-do Samuel Alabaster (a cap-toothed Robert Pattinson) on a sojourn across the frontier, toting the miniature horse Butterscotch across a young America as a suitable gift for when he finally reaches his lady love Penelope (Wasikowska) and claims her hand in marriage. When he and his intended are reunited at long last, however, she’s decidedly less pleased to see him; the audience learns that the romance between them exists exclusively in Samuel’s head, and that Penelope wants nothing to do with him or the series of suitors bluntly, aggressively attempting to court her. Damsel begins as one man’s quest to fulfill a delusion, and ends as one woman’s valiant struggle to get men to leave her alone.

Penelope probably won’t go down as Wasikowska’s finest performance — and that there are no fewer than eight roles feasibly in competition for that title is a testament to the enormity and versatility of her talent — but it does most neatly exemplify the type to which the actress has tended to gravitate. Judging from the through lines in her rich body of work, Wasikowska places a high premium on qualities of agency, independence, and self-sufficiency. She plays women who keep to themselves and care for themselves, who don’t necessarily have strength in the default strong-female-character mold, but always have guile at a minimum. And in most instances, this sense of capability puts her at odds with the men around her, along with the perceptions they assign to the sort of artsy, sensitive girl she’s made her stock and trade. In the end, invariably, a fierce intellect and indomitable selfhood wins out, challenging, if not fully upending, restrictive narratives about young women all along the way.

For a PR flack gunning to sell Hollywood and America on a then-unknown Wasikowska in 2008, packaging a persona would’ve been simple enough. She projected a sharpness and emotional maturity that the details of her Australian upbringing confirmed: She trained as a ballerina with a near-professional regimen from age 9, only to abandon the barre at age 14, citing the deleterious effects of pressure to achieve perfection. As a junior cinephile, she took to Kieślowski’s Three Colors trilogy and decided to pursue acting out of admiration for Holly Hunter in The Piano and Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence. She had gotten on Stateside radars with a substantive role as a suicidal teen gymnast on HBO’s minimalist drama In Treatment, and her waifish good looks seemed to prime her for a proper arrival that would take the form of Tim Burton’s 2010 Alice in Wonderland.

Yet neither phase of her rise was quite as straightforward as it appeared. Wasikowska has proven a shrewd avoider of clichè, sometimes in her selection of scripts and sometimes in the choices she makes within them. In Treatment’s Sophie gave her the chance to subvert the trope of the self-destructive girl next door in need of saving, and Wasikowska later refused to succumb to the brutal dullness of Burton’s direction by imbuing her Alice with a curiosity and wonderment seldom seen in the leads of studio spectacles. Sophie first enters therapy with Dr. Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne) after a nasty car crash that he quickly assesses as a suicidal gesture, opening up a wellspring of repressed animosity for her parents and in particular her father. Daddy issues would have been a pretty Psych 101 move, if not for the prickliness Wasikowska used to keep both Paul and the audience at arm’s length. The final product of her arduous sessions was a hard-won self-actualization, a sturdiness that carried into her take on the girl that tumbled down the rabbit hole. Even when playing off of tennis balls attached to poles and spandex wads covered in ping-pong balls, she makes Alice seem like the philosopher-in-training Disney’s cartoon could only hint at.

In 2010, the year that suggested Wasikowska as a box-office draw in the tradition of Jennifer Lawrence, her truer calling as a utility player for distinctive auteurs was also launched. The last eight years have seen the actress on a continuing tour of directors with daring visions that align with her own, amassing an impressive backlog of self-possessed women with unexpected odd angles. She offset Alice with a film for grown-ups, Lisa Cholodenko’s easygoing dramedy The Kids Are All Right, wherein she played the upstanding daughter to a lesbian couple (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore). She and her brother (Josh Hutcherson) travel inverse paths; he, the hooligan, learns a little responsibility, while the golden girl allows herself to loosen up and sneak off to a party. It’s a simple expression of a formula Wasikowska would repeat with fascinating variation over the following eight years: establish a character’s profile, and then pose a challenge to it that makes it whole.

In a run of period pieces — Cary Fukunaga’s lyrical rendition of Jane Eyre in 2011, and then in 2012, downer Mrs. Doubtfire riff Albert Nobbs and the audacious bootlegger epic Lawless — she exposed what festered below the genteel surfaces of the past. Sometimes, it was a personal hardship; she approached Charlotte Brontë’s text with an understanding that it’s a tragedy far more frequently than it is a romance, wearing her stern countenance like armor she removes only for her Michael Fassbender–played Rochester. (Jane Eyre earned her a comparison to Isabelle Huppert in the pages of Time, her spiritual godmother in prickliness.) More frequently, it was the impositions of men; Albert Nobbs placed her under the thumb of a manipulative lover that she found the wherewithal to cast off, and Lawless stuck her in the crossfire between her moonshine-running beau and the coppers. In all three cases, she first motions toward antiquated society’s quiet, passive feminine ideal before exposing a reserve of willfulness going against the era’s grain.

In 2013, Wasikowska delivered what athletes refer to as a “career year,” as she strung together a series of successes that mapped the full breadth of her abilities. Her least well-known feat may be the most personally revealing, a short adapted from Tim Winton’s short story “Long, Clear View” and included in the Aussie anthology film The Turning. It was here that Wasikowska made her debut as director and writer, demonstrating an instant aptitude for both that verified a thoughtfulness the public could then only presume from well-handled interviews and her feted entry to the field of photography. Careful considerations for things like lighting and camera placement are evident onscreen, proof that she understands the relationship between form and content to an extent that the lion’s share of actor turned cineastes don’t. Thespians usually direct for thespians, foregrounding performances while visual intricacies take a back seat, but Wasikowska is committed first and foremost to the text. She uses voice-over to convey the story’s unorthodox second-person format, and in doing so, leaves her cast as a collection of reflections. She constrains most of them to face acting that comments on the story as much as dictates it, a move from someone with an inquisitive streak about what film can do and be.

That year, her varied work on the other side of the camera expanded her range and cemented her reputation as a new toast of the art-house circuit. The one-two-three-four punch of Only Lovers Left Alive, Tracks, The Double, and Stoker made for a compelling argument that she was one of those rare chameleons capable of slipping into any tone or milieu. (Never mind that those first three only made it to American cineplexes in 2014 after celebrated festival runs; rules is rules.) An incorrigible brat, a loner hunting for true solitude, a reluctant crush object, and a volatile adolescent in the throes of her coming of age, these four roles run the full dispositional gamut. She can do flirty and flighty, as with her wild-child vampire in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. She went hard-nosed and withdrawn for Tracks, widely forgotten today for no reason other than the strong resemblance it bore to Reese Witherspoon’s Oscar-nominated turn in 2014’s Wild. She worked a nonchalant charm as the resident romantic interest in Richard Ayoade’s take on Dostoyevsky’s The Double, and then brought out her inner disturbed little girl for Park Chan-wook’s first foray into the English language, Stoker.

She pulls off a dozen styles of good acting across these four films, but their commonalities say more than the differences between them. Wasikowska appreciates an opportunity to try something she hasn’t done before, all the while keeping to the thematic constant of self-determination at all costs, those costs often being combative relationships with men. As Jarmusch’s bloodsucker, she literally uses her boy toys up and casts them aside once they’ve been drained, a more violent equivalent to the thoroughly unattached sex she has with her travel companion (Adam Driver) in Tracks. The fabric of the film itself invisibly pushes them together, but her restless wanderer won’t be tied down so easily and prefers to go it alone.

The Double’s Hannah must beat back such advances on a textual level, as a lovesick desk jockey (Jesse Eisenberg, who, ironically enough, began dating Wasikowska during the production of the film) grows convinced from afar that they’re kindred souls and belong together. The film itself subscribes to this same latent chemistry until deep into the second act, when the heretofore-gazed-at Hannah starts talking and takes issue with a complete stranger fetishizing her and her sadness.

If her career can be reduced to a single net yield, it would be the complete destruction of that specific fetish, a tendency in superficially soulful men to find something — now, hear the following two words in a mocking tone of voice — tragically beautiful in troubled young women. Hannah’s depression manifests in a harshly visceral capacity, confronting Eisenberg’s malcontent with more ugliness than he bargained for, and the same goes for the audience. In his imagination, he’s sanded off all her edges, and she’s both aware and resentful of that idealized view.

Park’s eponymous India Stoker, and Agatha Weiss, the quiet hellion she portrayed for David Cronenberg in Maps to the Stars, took this character schematic to the extreme. Beyond mere countering, these unstable young women fully weaponize that fawning fascination and redirect it back at the subjects of their wrath. India has one of cinema’s queasiest will-they-or-won’t-they tensions with her homicidal stepdad (Matthew Goode), but ultimately gets out from under her own budding libido and seizes that attraction for his undoing. Agatha earns a spot as personal assistant to a prima donna movie star (Julianne Moore) with an obsequious All About Eve act, rather flimsy as it may be, considering her pronounced demeanor of off-ness. All the same, she can wield the archetype of the innocent fresh-off-the-bus girl as a cudgel when the time comes to exact her revenge. She also ended Crimson Peak bloodied and triumphant, an inner core of stern stuff having emerged like so much CGI clay through snow. She ends all her period performances having inverted the whole gentility bit, but only Guillermo del Toro let her do so via blunt-force trauma.

The interim period leading to the present brought another directorial credit with the expressionistic short “Afterbirth,” another tour of duty through pre-viz franchise hell with Alice, and the barely existent World War II thriller snappily titled HHnH. This year promises good things, with Damsel soon to be followed by Nicolas Pesce’s S&M-inflected freak show Piercing, both of them a return to the outré fare on which she made her name. She’s also shot a role in the upcoming feature Bergman Island from French director Mia Hansen-Løve, a simpatico mind in her ongoing inquisition into the complexities of adult women.

Speaking with Glenn Close for Interview magazine, Wasikowska joked that she saw herself pregnant and starting university classes by age 30. The line sounds tongue-in-cheek, but it earnestly speaks to how little she cares about conforming to expectations. Her dedicated opposition to reductive or sanitized portraits of imperfect women has a tint of radicalism when surveyed as a whole. She infiltrates her mindfully curated films under the cover of an unassuming femininity, an exterior concealing a few thorns occasionally lodged in leering male eyes. Slip up and stumble into a crush, and she might just burn your house down. Or shoot off your kneecaps. Or stab you in the neck with pruning shears. Or crush your skull with a shovel. Or feed on your blood.

The Radical Self-Sufficiency of Mia Wasikowska