The allure of an invisible existence is a constant in Cruise’s filmography. In Mission: Impossible, Vanessa Redgrave’s arms dealer says anonymity is “like a warm blanket.” Jack Reacher says living off the grid “started out as an exercise, and became an addiction.” In Rock of Ages, Cruise plays rock legend Stacee Jaxx, a foundering rock star who, like Cruise himself, is known to all but understood by none. When Malin Akerman’s Rolling Stone journalist tries to get under Stacee’s skin, he taunts her with his own inaccessibility. “I know me better than anyone,” he says, pointing at his face, “because I live in here.”
Cruise’s face plays a starring role in Vanilla Sky, in which his cocky publishing scion wears a translucent prosthetic to cover the scars of a near-fatal car crash. Or maybe—spoiler alert—there are no scars, and there was no crash. The movie replays scenes and shifts between scenarios so fluidly that the audience, like Cruise’s David Aames, is driven crazy, unable to distinguish reality from dream.
What saves David from insanity is not Kurt Russell’s psychiatrist, who turns out to be a construction of David’s mind, but his body. “Accept your body’s resistance,” the fictitious shrink counsels him. “Let your head answer.” (Note that he says “your head” and not “your mind.”) David wants to wake from his “dream,” which turns out to be a scenario implanted by a cryonics firm offering a “union of science and entertainment.” But in order to do so he has to sacrifice his body, metaphorically killing himself by jumping off the top of a skyscraper. Only then can he open his eyes.
In an essay in last week’s New York Times Magazine, Taffy Brodesser-Akner praised Cruise as “the movie world’s most unlikely symbol of old-fashioned authenticity.” But that judgment is rooted entirely in Cruise’s physicality: He does his own stunts, the writer notes; he is “the hardest-working megastar in the business.” (Did you know Cruise did his own stunt driving in Jack Reacher? An army of publicists made sure you did.) In Rock of Ages, the journalist confronts Stacee Jaxx with the old saw that performers are desperate for the audience’s love. But, he sinuously retorts, it’s not love that keeps him going. What, then? “Sex, and other people’s projections of what they want me to be.” He doesn’t exist when he’s not being watched.
Here’s the thing, though. Stacee Jaxx isn’t real, even within the world of Rock of Ages. He’s a persona, a pseudonym made flesh, just like the one adopted by Thomas Mapother IV. Perhaps that’s why Cruise’s highly stylized, glammed-out performance cuts deeper than the grim-faced guardians of Oblivion and Jack Reacher. Stacee is a fraud, and he knows it. Is it Cruise confessing, or him playing off the notion of the disaffected star while secretly loving every minute of it? Cruise keeps peeling back his mask, but underneath is another, and another, and beneath that, maybe nothing at all.