The Highbrow

Joseph Gordon-Levitt

A hard-boiled romantic in bloom.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt has a face that invites description, in part because it is so often still. His acting style is minimalist. In Mysterious Skin(2004), Brick(2005), and The Lookout(2007)—the three best movies he has made so far—he projects emotion by containing it. As Brendan, a gawky high-school sleuth in the stylish neo-noir Brick, he lets perceptions flicker in his eyes, tightening a few muscles, but doesn’t give away his cards even as he squats and stares at the body of his ex-girlfriend (and true love), Emily, abandoned in an aqueduct. He keeps so still that he shakes almost imperceptibly. This tension between stillness and profound feeling—a muscular ache the audience can almost feel—is at the heart of his acting; his characters are like insulated electric wires. He turns affectlessness into a way of conveying loss and insight; it’s this quality that led David Edelstein, in a recent review of The Lookout, to label him a “major tabula rasa” actor. It also makes him something of a rarity on the screen, where Method-driven psychological expressiveness is far more common.

Gordon-Levitt, now 26, was always something of an alien in Hollywood. He acted in numerous movies and TV shows as a child, but his career began in earnest in 1996, when he took on the role of a precocious teenage extraterrestrial on the sitcom 3rd Rock From the Sun. Put off by the life of a Hollywood celebrity—he has said he disliked it when teen magazines made up things about him—he stopped acting to attend Columbia University, where, according to the New York Times, he studied French for a few years before leaving when director Gregg Araki cast him as a charismatic gay hustler in Mysterious Skin. Now, in addition to acting, he has a Web site, Hit Record, where he develops short films of his own. (He talks more about his acting life in a video here.) Raised in California, he comes by his interest in acting and directing honestly: His grandfather directed the well-regarded Cyrano de Bergerac (1950) before being blacklisted.

It appears to be in the family blood to be a little bit of an outsider. Thus far, Gordon-Levitt has largely made a habit of playing the wise exile, the keen observer who manages to stay just under the radar of those around him; if he has a type, it’s the guy whose apartness lends him a shrouded romance that is at once vulnerable and distant, making intimacy difficult. Take the moment in Brick—a Chandler-esque noir set in a high school—when Brendan tries to recover his ex-girlfriend Emily (who is in deep trouble with some drug-dealing students and needs his help) only to have her explain that she had to leave him: “What are you? Just eating [lunch] back here [away from everyone else], hating everybody. Who are you, judging everyone?” He had chased her down in desperation—an upwelling of feeling—but barely flinches as she walks away. There is a code to be followed. After he discovers Emily’s dead body, he refuses to discuss his despair even with his best friend, the Brain. “So what’s the word with Em?” the Brain asks, not knowing the deal. “She’s gone.” “Can’t raise her?” “No, I can’t.” Then, almost to himself, under his breath, Brendan mutters, “I can’t let her go. I was set to but I can’t.” His voice cracks; but his eyes are hidden. (As the femme fatale later puts it, “You think nobody sees you … Loving some girl like she’s all there is, anywhere, to you.”) 

This quietude works because we can sense the effort it takes. Gordon-Levitt uses his body the way some writers use sentences: as a rhythm by which meaning can be conveyed. He employs a hands-in-pocket, hunched stride that accents his lithe skinniness—by turns gawky and elegant—and becomes its own alert visual signature, a way of hiding in plain sight, in style. As Chris Pratt in The Lookout, a bank-heist caper, Gordon-Levitt plays a brain-damaged athlete-turned-janitor who gets involved with a bad crowd; remarkably, his physical performance encompasses both the adrenaline-happy rich kid Chris once was, and the yearning, impaired (but intelligent) person he now is. The lurching walk Gordon-Levitt develops for Chris captures the character’s sense of being at an angle to his peers’ lives without the actor’s  having to “act out” that difference. He seems suspicious of simplistic binaries (the impulse to create an “us” and a “them”). It’s this suspicion, one presumes, that is his motivation for taking on what many reporters—smitten like me—have been calling “unconventional roles.” As Gordon-Levitt noted almost impatiently in one interview, some of these roles are hardly unconventional: He’s played a hustler with a heart of gold, a gumshoe in a noir, and a mob doctor (in Shadowboxer). Perhaps the roles seem unconventional because the scripts allow him to play them as individuals rather than types. He finds a way to persuade us of their utter complexity.

Gordon-Levitt’s performance in Mysterious Skin led A.O. Scott to declare, in a Slate “Movie Club,” that he “belongs to a new generation of actors who use diffidence and guardedness—the default stances, it seems, of many young people today—as ways of exploring registers of emotion that might be lost in the method-derived psychological explorations of their elders.” In Brick, he wears the pain on the inside and signals it through averted glances and a flicking wit. At the same time, though (as I’m sure Scott would agree), Gordon-Levitt is capable of more than hard-boiled distance or mere surface ironies—it’d be worth paying the money just to see the opening of The Lookout, in which Chris drives in the dark through a field of fireflies with his girlfriend and friends. His face is lit up with a squinting hunger, the property of adolescents trapped inside the new song of their lives. In both Brick and Mysterious Skin, his characters break down and sob—really sob. There is nothing cynical about his guardedness; it comes from the possibly noble intuition that in an age of self-exposure, feelings might be something worth keeping to oneself.

The other thing that makes Gordon-Levitt unusual for a young actor—beyond his sheer talent—is how his diffidence short-circuits our scripts for empathy. Many of his films have at their core a past trauma (child molestation, for example; or a horrific car accident); but there is nothing reductive or sentimental about the handling of these characters and their subsequent struggles. A different film about a star athlete impaired in an accident might concentrate on the drama of healing; in The Lookout, no true recovery is possible—and in fact, Chris Pratt must endure more pain (he becomes a patsy for a guy bent on robbing the bank where he works) before he can begin to build a new life. Any salvation, we know, will be partial and incomplete.

We may wish these characters were at greater ease than they are—particularly in the case of Neil in Mysterious Skin, who as a young prostitute throws himself at abusive older men with casual, cruel disregard for his own safety—but Gordon-Levitt never allows us to experience this wish simplistically. His characters are too intelligent, too merciless in their own self-evaluation, too implicated in their own destinies, to be patronized. And so when Brendan hides his eyes in Brick, we know it’s because there’s something there—something in them—that he doesn’t want us to see; not because they’re empty.