Wide Angle

The Many Contradictions of Owen Wilson

The Loki actor has always been synonymous with a wide-eyed “Wow!”—but his sadness is just as crucial.

Owen Wilson is seen as his characters in The Royal Tenenbaums, Wedding Crashers, Loki, Marley & Me, and Bottle Rocket.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by New Line Cinema, Marvel, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, Touchstone Pictures, and Columbia Pictures.

The latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe might be called Loki, but the God of Mischief is nowhere to be found in the premiere episode’s most important moment. That scene comes only 14 minutes in, as Owen Wilson, the show’s co-star, questions a boy in early modern France about a murder. Wilson is playing Mobius M. Mobius, a time detective whose job it is to hunt down people who have committed crimes against temporal continuity by opening up alternate realities. The boy he’s questioning exists in one of these realities and has recently seen some of Mobius’s co-workers get murdered. After Mobius gets the information he needs, he quietly tells the boy to go wait outside. This aberrant timeline, we are told, is about to be “reset.” But there’s something odd going on, and it’s all over Wilson’s face, in the wateriness of his gaze, the slight furrow of his brow, and the tension around his lips. The tenderness with which he treated the boy has given way to an unexpected regret. It is in this moment that we get a sense of what “resetting a timeline” might actually entail. It might just mean that this little boy and everything else in his universe will cease to exist. It might mean Mobius’ job requires regularly committing murder on an unfathomable scale, and that it has finally begun to weigh on him.

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Mobius’ sadness is a tell that there are more interesting layers to his character than the Loki superfan who guides the audience and protagonist through what amounts to an MCU clip show during the rest of the episode. But this discovery of unexpected depths to Mobius should not come as a surprise: Wilson’s careful deployment of his inherent sadness has always been a sign that he’s a far more interesting, intelligent, and idiosyncratic actor than he is usually credited for being. Some of our underestimation of him is his own fault—he’s only made a small handful of good films and is too often happy to glide by on his natural, laid-back charisma. But there is a thing he can do better than almost any other actor alive: embody an eccentric, wide-eyed innocence, and then find underneath it a knowing darkness.

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Wilson’s sensibility is one that is particularly American. It can be found in the books of Charles Portis and Denis Johnson, in the comedies of the Coen brothers, and in the much-missed television series Lodge 49, all works in which naïve, overconfident men pursue oddball dreams. These dreamers are hilarious, but they usually don’t intend to be—they often take themselves a little too seriously. Their dreams are at such an angle to the world that every situation, no matter how mundane, takes on an uncanny, absurd quality as soon as they walk into it.

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A gleeful embrace of absurdity is key to Wilson’s performances, reinforced by his high-pitched, soft Texan drawl, eyes that seem lit by their own flame, and habit of declaring things to be “crazier than a road lizard.” His affable charm can make it easy to overlook how much detail and nuance he brings to his performances when he cares to. Like Robert Redford before him, Wilson at his best is a minimalist. His gestures are simple, compact, and he only moves when necessary. His face is exactly as expressive as it needs to be so you can track what his characters are thinking and feeling, but no more. Instead of trying to transcend the limitations of his limited vocal range, he’s embraced them to such an extent that he appears to have found a thousand ways to say the word wow.

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Wilson’s range is narrow, but there’s nothing wrong with having a narrow range if you know how to use it, and Wilson appears to have had a comprehensive knowledge of his strengths and weaknesses from the start of his career. In Bottle Rocket, his very first film, which he co-wrote with his then-roommate Wes Anderson, Wilson plays Dignan, a character who is so in thrall to his dream of criminal celebrity that he has written up a 75-year plan tracing his entire life’s journey in detail. He is unsettled, nervy, always worried at every point that his best friend, Anthony (played by Wilson’s brother Luke), isn’t as on board with the scheme as he implies. Dignan responds to the world as a 4-year-old would: innocently, but without much empathy, filled with wonder, but capable at any moment of careening from joy to rage and back. It’s hard to imagine the film working without Wilson, who turns simple low-key exchanges like answering the question “Are you in the military?” with “No man, I just have short hair,” into mini master classes of deadpan comedy. Dignan is always the butt of the joke, and Wilson and Anderson know it, but, importantly, they never allow Dignan to know it. This slight, ironic distance between Wilson and the character is also what makes him so devastatingly funny as Eli Cash, the drug-addicted, wannabe Cormac McCarthy in The Royal Tenenbaums. Cash’s literary delusions lead to some of the film’s best gags—just say “friscalating dusklight” to anyone who has seen the movie and watch them burst into giggles—but they come from a need for approval so desperate and bottomless that Cash mails his college grades and adult press clippings to his friends’ mother. Although Eli is in maybe 10 minutes of Royal Tenenbaums, he’s an outsize presence in the film, and Wilson, who again co-wrote the movie with Wes Anderson, charts a huge, crystal clear arc for his yearning, ridiculous character.

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After Tenenbaums, the Anderson-Wilson writing partnership ended. Over the next 20 years, Wilson turned in great performances in Anderson’s later films while coasting in terrible studio moneymakers. It’s not only that films like Starsky & Hutch or You, Me and Dupree are bad. It’s that there’s nothing particularly special about his work in them. He’s meant to be the lead in Wedding Crashers, but the film belongs squarely to Vince Vaughn. In Marley & Me, he gets upstaged by a dog. His lone great non-Anderson role and performance in this period is in Midnight in Paris, which takes advantage of his twinned senses of amazement and heartache to remind us that the word nostalgia actually refers to a form of pain. Along the way have also come a series of revelations about his private life—battles with depression and drug addiction, a child he has reportedly never met, and a suicide attempt—that suggest the melancholy in his great performances is more inherent to him than we might have originally known.

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Now, after a four-year gap in which his only appearances as an actor were as a guest on a couple of episodes of Documentary Now!  and as the voice of his Cars character in a Lego The Incredibles video game, Wilson is back with a slate of new films and a show set in the MCU. If there’s any moment that might signal renewal, this is it. Wilson’s similarly laid-back classmate at the University of Texas–Austin, Matthew McConaughey, famously staged his own comeback into respectability with The Dallas Buyers Club, Magic Mike, and the first season of True Detective, but in some ways his path was clearer. McConaughey’s genial on-screen presence has always come laced with danger, and danger is easier to sell than sadness. Of the movies Wilson has in the works, only Bliss, an obscure Amazon sci-fi drama, is available, but in both it and Loki, Wilson appears to have found a new sense of purpose. Loki’s White Collar­–meets–Rick and Morty premise does not require much from its performers, but Wilson and Tom Hiddleston (another compelling actor with a narrow range) have a good chemistry. Their scenes together work in part because they are such contrasts. Hiddleston, educated at Eton and Cambridge, brings a very English-style peevish mischief. Wilson, meanwhile, responds with American can-do pluck, which, of course, is its own form of mischief. Mobius outmaneuvers Loki by allowing himself to be underestimated and then revealing he knows more than he’s letting on. It works because of Wilson’s sense of restraint. He allows both the viewer and Loki to discover at the same time that there might be more to Mobius than initially assumed, rather than tipping his cards at the first opportunity.

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Bliss, written and directed by Another Earth’s Mike Cahill, might be sci-fi, but it couldn’t be further from Loki. Its budget is small; its concerns are human-scale. It connects to no franchise, and it appears that no one has seen it. In Bliss, Wilson plays Greg Wittle, a middle-aged corporate drone who, thanks to some help from Salma Hayek’s homeless Isabel Clemens, comes to believe our world is a simulation. Bliss is modeled on the novels of Philip K. Dick—reality is unstable, lots of people do drugs, and the narrative keeps veering off in unexpected directions—but it also shares with Dick’s novels the feeling that it was written in one sitting, and never revised. The main reason to see it is Wilson’s performance, which is as fully committed and nuanced as anything he’s ever done. Wittle is a man who may be finding himself, or destroying himself, or both at the same time. He is, from the very first moment, profoundly lost.

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Much like Ben Affleck’s post-rehab vehicle The Way Back, Bliss contains what feel like intentional echoes of Wilson’s personal life. Greg has lost his touch at work. He’s a drug addict, and depressed. He’s estranged from his kids, and not on speaking terms with their mother. Some of its appeal is perversely voyeuristic, in other words. To watch Wittle squirm in rehab as he says, “This woman says she’s my daughter … and I believe her,” is to ask oneself whether Wilson is recreating his own experience. But this link between performer and character also allows Wilson both to foreground the brokenness that his characters normally sublimate and collapse the little ironic distance that allowed audiences to enjoy his more madcap on-screen antics without finding them too dangerous. The sense of wonder is there, but it’s the wonder of a world-weary man in his 50s, one who is about to get a second chance.

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