Bill Pullman’s Face (10/98)

Sometimes you can tell what country you’re living in by the face you’re looking at. In his movies that count, Bill Pullman’s face is pushed down, as if by a weight he’s suddenly realized he’s carrying. He seems to be squinting, sighting some prize on the horizon. But what you’re seeing is pure pressure, the weight coming down, the muscles in the face straining to hold it up. The face begins to close, then it stops, and Pullman pulls back to think it all over, caught up in the joke or the horror of it all, wondering if somehow there might be more to the story, even if he knows there isn’t.
At forty-four, Pullman has appeared in a lot of movies—thirty-three, includ­ing Brokedown Palace and The Thin Red Line, both due this fall—but a few of them taken together make up as dis­tinct and disquieting a body of work as can be found today in any field. In each of his best roles, in MaliceThe Last Seduc­tionLost Highway, and The End of Violence, there comes a moment when his face and the weight pressing on it—the weight of the collapse of a marriage, the collapse of belief, the weight of a world that looks just as it did yesterday but no longer makes any sense at all—become the whole of the drama. The face concentrates motives and events so suggestively that it be­comes its own landscape: a window onto an Amer­ica defined not by hope but by fear, not by judg­ment but by paranoia, not by mastery but by sin, crime, and error. At its root, it is a Puritan drama, played out in God’s country, a coun­try, the face says, that God long ago left to its own devices.
This isn’t the Bill Pullman who gets talked about, when he gets talked about. He remains indistinct, confused with Bill Paxton or even Jeff Daniels. “Oh, that everyman guy, sort of blandly handsome,” a friend said. “Wasn’t he the president in Independence Day?” He was. He was also the sheepish grin in While You Were Sleeping, the straight man in Sleepless in Seattle. “There was this stupid article by some critic comparing some other actor to Bill Pullman, talking about his ‘bland, easygoing roles, never a threat,’” said a fan. “I don’t know what Bill Pullman movies he’d been watching.” But Pullman’s earnest, bumbling nice guy circling Sandra Bullock in While You Were Sleeping is only a few steps removed from his humiliated doctor in The Last Seduction, who peddles scripts and pharmaceutical cocaine to keep his wife happy. The roles in which Pullman gets lost in the scenery are like a backdrop for the real action, a foundation for the house that’s going to be pulled down.
That may be what David Lynch saw; he cast Pullman as the disintegrat­ing saxophone player Fred Madison in Lost Highway because, he says, “I always saw something in his eyes. Playing these mild-mannered, guy-next-door characters who most of the time don’t get the girl—but I saw the possibility for rage, for insanity. For a leading man. His eyes—it was his eyes. There was a lot more going on there than he was being asked to play.” Next door is still where he finds himself, but there was another country to be discovered, to be felt out in the course of a role: a place that has somehow used itself up, a nation sick of its burden of stronger, better, purer, truer, but lacking any other bluff to run, even on itself.The bluff is called on Pullman’s everyman in MaliceThe Last Seduction, and The End of Violence—a college dean, a doctor, and a Hollywood producer. (Pullman can make the biggest big shot seem ordinary.) These men are cuckolds, but they’re less surprised by that than they are stunned, amused, or even thrilled to find how intertwined the lives they’ve led are with evil. With his cards faceup and worthless, in each role Pullman traces the footsteps of his previous character, and the effect is a feeling of suspension, as Pull­man’s face seems to contemplate itself more than the world or his enemies, as he tries to read his own mind. If he’s not ready to accept that life is a joke, he’s beginning to understand the joke life has played on him. There is nothing so pat as a frown, a grimace, a cry of anguish or pain—nothing so cut-and-dried as David Letterman’s cynicism, the sallow self-loathing of the men in Richard Ford’s fiction, Tom Hanks’s firm-handshake­to-the-last, even Ving Rhames’s thou­sand-mile stare. There is no thousand miles in the country Pullman is looking at. A sly, bitter, self-knowing smile floats across Pullman’s eyes in the revelatory moments of these three films, followed by acceptance, satisfaction, or terror. Behind any ex­pression is a rising surge of doubt—Pullman’s character’s doubt about himself, about justice, about the next decision that will ruin his life and leave him stranded.
In Lost Highway, the drama is raised to the next level. The first shot begins where Pullman’s other work ends. We meet Fred Madison in extreme close-up: He looks wasted from the inside out. He looks half dead, and as if he’s waiting for the other half to come knocking on the door, and be­fore the opening shot breaks, it will. Madison embarks on a homicidal odyssey, a queerly austere Twilight Zone-style splatterfest, an adventure in displacement where the body is felt as little more than a host for disease. The doubt that the country has any­thing left to say to the ordinary man or woman, the citizen, the one who wants only to be left alone, is replaced by the certainty that it does not. In Pullman’s face the country fades out.
“Before,” David Lynch says, speak­ing of Malice and The Last Seduction, in which Pullman is overshadowed by Nicole Kidman or Alec Baldwin or Linda Fiorentino, “he needed to hold back, to maintain the balance of the movie. He didn’t have the power. He needed a movie that revolved around him, where he had the power.” It’s an odd thing to say about a character who seems powerless even at his most vio­lent, but that may be the point. As an actor, Pullman seems to use no power. You don’t think of him as an actor at all. He seems like a figment of someone else’s dream—“a dream,” as an ancient saying has it, “that is dreaming us.” Throughout Lost Highway, Pullman ap­pears not so much to inhabit Fred Madison as to merge his character into the spectral bodies of characters from all across the landscape of American film: Paul Muni pleading for under­standing in the last shots of I Am a Fugi­tive from a Chain Gang, Tom Neal staring dumbfounded at a body in his bed in Detour, Ralph Meeker’s sadistic bravado melting like ice in Kiss Me Deadly. Near the end of Lost Highway, when Pullman rises naked from the desert as a man who must avenge his own crimes, he looks—he fills the air—like no one so much as Gary Cooper: not Mr. Deeds or John Doe or Lou Gehrig or Sergeant York, but Cooper at the end of High Noon, somehow realizing that nothing has been settled.Cooper played a representative man; strangely, perhaps outside of in­tent, certainly outside of any system of beliefs to be affirmed, Pullman does the same. A picture comes to­gether: the bland, mild-mannered, unsurprising, all but unnoticeable all-American anybody, on any street, in any town, who can at any moment find himself ambushed by all that he trusts—and capable of horrible crimes. He is a representative man in spite of himself: handsome, soft, weak, bitter, still capable of surprise, an American at the dog end of the American century—a man, his face says so clearly, who believes in nothing but that the worst is yet to come. And that might be the power Lynch is talking about. Present in Pullman’s face is an America as a ni­hilist kingdom, where anything can happen and nothing can be said. In the face of this drama, those moments of humor or resolve that spring up and disappear can be the source of the most intense pleasure. But in the end, it’s the very disap­pearance of those moments, when for an instant you smile in the illu­sion that the man before you knows himself, that makes the drama. Pull­man moves off the screen like a fron­tiersman driven insane by keeping company with no one but himself.

Esquire, October 1998
Read more about Bill Pullman by Greil Marcus in The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice

One thought on “Bill Pullman’s Face (10/98)

  1. Pingback: Bill Pullman: From Coma to Theaters

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