David O. Russell’s Movies Are About the Insanity Lurking Just Beneath Our Placid Surfaces

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Nov. 16 2012 12:32 PM

Flirting With Disaster

David O. Russell’s movies are about anger and insanity lurking just beneath our placid surfaces.

(Continued from Page 1)

With Russell's new film, Silver Linings Playbook, the transformation is complete. Gone are the vivid colors, wide open spaces, and hallucinatory moments he'd gravitated toward until his Huckabees setback. His most recent two films feature muted palettes, claustrophobic mise en scene, and a straightforward storytelling approach. The kaleidoscopic experimentation of his earlier work has vanished, replaced by a far more mainstream-friendly caution. But Russell's fingerprints remain detectable if you look closely enough.

I could never quite manage to connect the dots as Russell's early career unfolded and he flitted between seemingly unrelated topics and contexts. He seemed determined to resist pigeonholing. Yes, we could always count on him for those unexpected music cues: '90s dirge-rockers Morphine soundtracking the mother-son sexual horseplay in Spanking the Monkey; '70s soft-rockers Chicago accompanying a frantic drive through the war-torn Iraqi desert in Three Kings; Led Zeppelin's alternately languid/thrashy "What Is and What Never Should Be" punctuating a bipolar freakout in Silver Linings. And there is always that signature shot: a restless, handheld camera pingponging between faces as a verbal fight escalates, accelerates, and explodes into physicality—this happens at least once in each of Russell’s films.

But as I watched a screening of Silver Linings Playbook last week, the entire Russell oeuvre suddenly clicked into place for me: Undergirding his choices is an auteurlike focus on a single, connective theme. Russell‘s animating notion is the uncertainty, insanity, anger, and passion that lurk just beneath our placid surfaces. In the director's commentary track on the Spanking the Monkey DVD, he ruminates on the ubiquity of uncomfortable work and family environments that become "oppressive" precisely because we are not allowed to discuss our discomfort. In real life, we are all pleasantries and grins in office hallways and at dinner tables—while below roil unspoken hurts and resentments. In Russell’s films, though, those hidden emotions never fail to boil over. Time and again, an authority figure will seem to be in control but will then unleash an unexpected salvo of inner chaos. In Spanking, an imperious mother feels so sexually neglected that she resorts to fooling around with her own son; in Flirting, a buttoned-up federal agent is dosed with LSD and embraces his inner weird; in Huckabees, a smarmily shmoozy corporate executive is tortured by crippling self-hatred.


Wahlberg, as an actor, seems perfectly tailored to carry out Russell's vision. Marky Mark has a jocky, everydude exterior, yet excels at conveying vulnerability. In Huckabees, he's a muscle-y fireman with a paralyzing fixation on unanswerable existential questions; The Fighter finds him confidently brawling inside the ring but barely able to stand up to his own mom at home. Wahlberg was originally slotted for the lead role in Silver Linings, and his replacement Bradley Cooper ends up playing a sort of Wahlberg surrogate: a slightly oafish Philadelphia Eagles fanatic who suffers from deep-seated psychological turmoil.

Russell no doubt fancies himself one of these conflicted beefy/thoughtful dudes. His aesthetic seems to merge in equal parts his childhood, in a combustible Jewish/Italian household (he's spoken of hellacious arguments between his parents, and has alluded to a drunk-driving accident involving his mother), with college years spent at Amherst during which he studied Buddhist philosophy under Robert Thurman. His sets themselves replicate this bifurcated dynamic: In the infamous YouTube clip of his Huckabees dust-up, Russell is attempting to film an erudite discussion about the nature of existence, but he ends up screaming, smashing props, and calling Lily Tomlin a "cunt."

Russell's recent run of success (Silver Linings is generating considerable awards buzz) may paint him as a font of audience-friendly, middlebrow fare. But the rage that fuels his work has never really gone away. He's just decided to more deeply submerge it beneath a pleasant exterior.



The Ebola Story

How our minds build narratives out of disaster.

The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics

A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers


Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.


The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Would You Trust Walmart to Provide Your Health Care? (You Should.)

  News & Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
Gentleman Scholar
Oct. 22 2014 5:54 PM May I Offer to Sharpen My Friends’ Knives? Or would that be rude?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 4:27 PM Three Ways Your Text Messages Change After You Get Married
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
Oct. 22 2014 11:54 PM The Actual World “Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.