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.