In “The Conjuring,” Patrick Wilson attempts to fix a Chevy. It’s entirely tangential to the plot. He just sees a broken down car and decides to open up the hood and get busy. It’s not even haunted. This diversion into the hobbies of Wilson’s character, demonologist Ed Warren, is supposed to be character development. He’s the man of the family, drawn to machinery and the occasional folksy metaphor: demonic attachment, he explains to the Perron Family, is “like stepping on gum. It sticks with you.” He is, for lack of a better word, solid.
Most of the paranormal heavy lifting is done by his wife, Lorraine (Vera Farmiga). She’s a clairvoyant, able to see the spirits who terrorize the Perron Family in their Rhode Island home. Her gift is innate, while Ed has only studied the religious science of “demonology.” She also has better clothes. Yet, since an accident during an exorcism that Ed will only allude to, he keeps asking her to stay home and avoid the stresses of their vocation. She comes along anyway, and steamrolls over his objections with a quick reminder of how thoroughly she beats him in the charisma department.
To clarify: Ed Warren is the one without charisma, not Patrick Wilson. Yet that’s been a little hard to tell over the last couple of years. The actor has had a run of parts that call for a well-built, potentially heroic white dude, personality optional. “Insidious” is much the same, in which Wilson plays the father of a child under demonic harassment. He spends much of the film away from his haunted house, however, choosing to hide at work. When he eventually confronts the villain in the film’s impressively constructed and somewhat ridiculous final sequence, he’s somewhat less than effective. After all, if he had really saved the day there wouldn’t be a sequel coming out this September. The trailer hints pretty strongly that it’s all dad’s fault.
For Wilson, this will now be three James Wan films in a row in which he attempts to fight demons but is mostly upstaged by his wife (Rose Byrne in the “Insidious” films). It raises a question: can a character be a hero if his heroic flaw is his bland ineffectualness? “Insidious” tries to make this interesting, turning his fear into an obstacle. “The Conjuring” does less, assuming perhaps that because Ed is presented as a demon hunter we don’t need to see him do much actual hunting in order to find him compelling. Perhaps the only interesting variation for Wilson in the last few years was “Young Adult,” in which suburban husband Buddy is at least made more interesting by the blatant sexual assault of Charlize Theron’s Mavis Gary.
So how did we get here? In a way, this is all the logical extension of Wilson’s two best roles (and best performances): 2003’s “Angels in America” and 2006’s “Little Children.” In the HBO mini-series adapted from Tony Kushner’s award-winning drama, he plays a young gay Mormon, unhappily married to a Valium-addicted housewife. Yet in this story he breaks away, awakening via some illicit trips through The Brambles of Central Park and running from the crushing monotony of the uncomplicated heterosexuality to which he was raised. There’s a nude awakening by the beach, a complicated relationship with a very neurotic Jew, and plenty of sexual tension.
That’s another element missing from these more recent roles: sex. “Little Children” one of Wilson’s few really leading roles, makes great use of the actor’s physical appeal. Todd Field’s adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s novel still positions him as the ineffectual husband/father, a former football player who somehow cannot pass the bar exam. Yet his affair with Kate Winslet is a rippling vein of activity, both sexual and emotional, and gives Wilson so much to work with. Field eroticizes the actor more than anyone else has, while simultaneously directing him into some of his most intriguing scenes. It’s effective because it breaks down his character, much like “Angels in America” did.
We can only hope there’s more of that in Wilson’s future. In the meantime, however, this turn to the supernatural is fascinating in its flatness. His collaboration with Wan has been fruitful, in the sense that the movies themselves are quite good. “Insidious,” aside from its hokeyness, was plenty effective and “The Conjuring” is terrifying (and not too terrifying). It’s almost as if these genre projects depend upon Wilson to be bland in order to flood the rest of the screen with the shock and awe of Wan’s style of horror. Yet it’s no fun to see the actor so bland all of the time. It does look like Wan may finally tear apart a Wilson character in “Insidious: Chapter 2,” which is an exciting prospect. That deconstruction is the only way out.
There’s proof of that last assertion, actually. “A Gifted Man” was Wilson’s foray into television, a short-lived CBS series that premiered in September of 2011 and was canceled the following May. Wilson plays Dr. Michael Holt, the best neurosurgeon in New York City. He also talks to his dead wife (Jennifer Ehle), who convinces him to take a role in the free clinic she ran before being killed in a hit-and-run. The show had some major problems, not least of which being the hilarious frequency of brain tumors among minor characters. Rather than weaken or crack open Dr. Holt, “A Gifted Man” just gives him more heroic things to do. He saves more and more lives, both the rich people who frequent his regular job and the less fortunate families who go to the free clinic. The plethora of medical disasters made the episodes exciting on paper, but the total lack of intriguing character development in its leading man made it dull.
Basically: Wilson is a good-looking, physically and artistically solid actor who is perfectly believable as the upstanding, honest husband and father. But without a few cracks in his armor, he might as well be a statue. Somebody important in Hollywood figure this out, please.