In the past few years, the Venice International Film Festival has become more of a launching pad for major award-season releases. In the process, it has also become a launching pad for major award-season performances. The movies themselves are one thing. (Amid the ongoing arms race of standing ovations, it can still be hard to tell which films will actually resonate with audiences and awards bodies and go the distance, especially with Toronto and New York and the holiday-movie season still on the horizon.) But the acclaim-bound performances — those you can spot a mile away. And the glitzy, fan-clogged, red-carpet milieu of a film festival in September often seems like the perfect showcase for them even when the films themselves are not glamorous at all.
Venice has been filled with lots of big, bold, showy turns that scream, “Look at me!” Cate Blanchett is the greatest conductor of our time in Tár. Ana de Armas is Marilyn Monroe in Blonde. Hugh Jackman is a grieving father in The Son. Timothée Chalamet is a country-boy cannibal in Bones and All. Brendan Fraser is 600 pounds in The Whale. And so on. These actors gesticulate, they scream, they cry, they die (sometimes), and they make us cry. For the most part, they’ve earned their hosannas. But it can be refreshing sometimes, amid all these alpha-dog master thespians, to see someone quietly yank our heartstrings by simply being present and, seemingly, not doing much at all. That’s where Walton Goggins comes is.
Goggins is here this year with a film called Dreamin’ Wild, written and directed by Bill Pohlad — director of 2014’s Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy. Here, Pohlad has found another true-life music-industry story about family and the slippery nature of success. This time, it’s the story of Donnie and Joe Emerson, two brothers from Fruitland, Washington, who as teenagers in 1979 put out a lovely little album called Dreamin’ Wild. Independently recorded in a studio their father had built for the kids on the family farm, the album did zero business and disappeared. But in 2008, a record collector in Spokane rediscovered the album, and it started spreading in the right indie circles. Dreamin’ Wild was rereleased and got an 8/10 rating on Pitchfork, and suddenly the Emerson brothers found the acclaim and fame they’d longed for as kids. But their lives had changed, and the psychological and financial damage of their thwarted dreams had already been done. (The film is based on a 2016 article by Steven Kurutz.)
The movie is … well, it’s not exactly great. The story is interesting, to be sure, but Pohlad’s script is ham-handed and obvious — so much so that it can often take you out of the film. Casey Affleck, as Donnie, the singer-songwriter who drives much of the brothers’ music, is talented enough to make the clunky, on-the-nose dialogue work — sometimes. He gets to do the capital-A acting in this one. But it’s Goggins who draws you in with his quiet performance as Joe, the other brother. While Donnie has continued to perform at local bar gigs with his wife (Zooey Deschanel), Joe, who played drums on the original album, has been mostly stagnant all these years. He lives on the family farm and has slowly built a beautiful house with his own hands. We’re told that he loved someone once, briefly, but that she died. He’s not a melancholy brooder however. He just seems like an average person living his life.
Goggins has played all sorts of characters in his career, including heavies, and he’s capable of giving wild, scene-stealing turns as well as the type of performances that shrink into the background. He has always struck me as having a kind face, a very human face. You see Goggins, and you’re immediately reminded of real people you’ve known, not just because of how he looks but because of the lived-in nature of his performances. As Joe, he’s watchful but awkward, looking like he’s about to say something but has maybe thought better of it. He seems content, at times, to stand back and observe.
When the Emersons start preparing to perform again, Joe struggles with the drums — we gather that he hasn’t been playing much music in the intervening years, even though he’s initially the more enthusiastic one about the rerelease of their album. Joe is happy to be along for the ride. That’s because, as we eventually realize, he’s happy for his brother and his family. He recognizes that Donnie is the talented one with the ambition and drive; Joe, on the other hand, is there out of love. He’s passive but not in the weak way that movies often present passivity. It’s because that’s the way so many of us are in the real world. And Goggins portrays that with such lovely, quiet understatement that, eventually, all you’re doing is watching him.
I think the film knows this. Dreamin’ Wild, as I’ve noted, has its issues: There are lines of dialogue so blunt that I actually found myself bursting out laughing during some pretty serious scenes. But great performances don’t happen in a vacuum, and credit should go to Pohlad for knowing exactly what to do with Goggins. There’s a very good chance that, amid all the great, award-worthy performances of this year’s stacked Venice lineup, this is among the handful that will truly stay with me.
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