I wanted to revisit a Tom Cruise film for the LAMB this week, and I chose Vanilla Sky because Eyes Wide Shut was off limits. The thoughts in this post are not as fully formed as I’d like, but it’s probably not the last time I’ll watch this film: I definitely think Tom Cruise’s best work came in the period including and immediately following Eyes Wide Shut. He is interestingly featured in five consecutive films (Eyes Wide Shut, Magnolia, Mission Impossible 2, Vanilla Sky, and Minority Report) wearing a mask or some (metaphorical) semblance of one. I do not believe this is mere coincidence; these roles seem to have had some sort of greater purpose to his life or career that, unfortunately, does not seem to have continued afterwards.
Surely working with Stanley Kubrick for those couple of years had an impact, though maybe this period actually started with his role in Jerry Maguire (his first work with Cameron Crowe). All of his best roles (one could even including Rain Man or Born on the Fourth of July) have at their core the idea of a man waking from a kind of dream-like, unexamined life. Or in the case of Magnolia (clearly one of his most focused performances), his character erodes an intentionally exaggerated persona that masks a personal grief. Mission Impossible 2 literalizes this playing with one’s persona by containing actual face masks of other people that are worn and taken off. Vanilla Sky is the pinnacle of this fascination with the consequences of playing with one’s identity, more dramatically making a literal mask of the face that delves into some of the most darkly literate exploration that Cruise has ever attempted (though how much of the references to Dumas, Georges Franju, etc. are simply carried over from Alejandro Amenebar‘s original work is hard to say). One could even include Minority Report with its themes of masking free will and the power of the self (ripe with Scientological metaphors I won’t try to approach here).
All of these movies are alike in that they have strong, accomplished directors, yet contain a Tom Cruise who is simultaneously a real person performing a role and a movie star called “Tom Cruise”. The “Hitting it Hard” documentary on the Vanilla Sky DVD (which highlights the international press tour for that film) is especially enlightening to this effect, where a French critic asks him, in light of his success and international popularity, if it is no longer possible ‘for him to be real’. A decade later, it remains a question that is more relevant than ever.
This is my prologue for revisiting Vanilla Sky. Of the five films mentioned above, this one seems the most interesting in terms of what it has to say about TOMCRUISE (registered trademark) as an entity. It is the one film that most overtly plays with the idea of him as a movie star and (unlike Magnolia, or even Tropic Thunder) the expectations of him as a romantic lead.
“Living the Dream”
Where to start (again) with this film? It is a remake that is, in a way, like all remakes, unnecessary. Yet, unlike so many, it is wholly its own entity. Cameron Crowe makes this story his own and expands it beyond anything possible in the original; it is, as he says, “a cover version” (and one that is specifically relevant to American culture because of it). He creates an experience, like the main character’s, which is ‘sculpted out of the iconography of his youth’. He creates a puzzle that is both imminently solvable and perpetually out-of-reach to the individual viewer. It is story that is, like one’s own life and dreams, filled with unreliable characters and emotions. Tom Cruise happens to be one of these characters and playing one of these characters.
The film is an interpretative sponge (narratively, I’m of the opinion that the explanation given in the elevator isn’t entirely true). It resonates with a great amount of thematic material that I could not possibly cover if I could even hope to comprehend it all (on my third viewing I only just now caught the Vertigo reference about a 102 minutes in). So, I’ll focus here on Cruise’s performance. By definition, it contains a great amount of introspection. It is, as the character says before being presented with an “aesthetic regenerative shield” (aka “a fucking mask”) by his doctors, not “about vanity…[when] it’s my job to be out there functioning in the world”. While Tom Cruise is playing off of what is expected of him as a movie star and specifically what people think is “Tom Cruise”, he focuses on deconstructing it in a rather daring way (and in a way one could argue that Eyes Wide Shut failed to adequately explore in its stifling formalism). Cruise starts out playing a quasi-asshole, a womanizer, an all-around privileged man who is simply “snowboarding through life”; a familiar persona that can be traced back to several other previous performances. Yet here, his character’s dilemma is that he creates his own nightmare (ultimately stemming from inner loss and loneliness), because, well, “the subconscious is a powerful thing”. Cruise literally puts on a mask by playing with his own. The mask obviously gives him the ability to hide, but it also requires him to work beyond the usual crutch of familiarity movie stars like him are afforded. Maybe that’s what draws him to this repeated theme; it is a way of attempting to force ways of innovating his personal “mask”. It requires him to take risks in ways that ultimately leads to expected negative criticism from critics and fans.
As the Tech Support in this film could tell Tom Cruise in real life: “you are their god…you can make them obey you or even destroy you”. His work in this movie gives over that star power (that he seems to be strategically trying to gain back these days, ironically enough). When it is increasingly clear that “time is not your friend”, if only more actors would take such a risk with what is expected of them.
Subtle glances and facial expressions are key here in evaluating Cruise’s performance. And, of course, the parts where you can’t even see his face or it is distorted in a way that limits or convolutes what he appears to be thinking. The requirements of this role are really much more subtle than much of what people have tended to expect from him as an actor; there are many of what Crowe calls “moments of quiet realization”. It all comes down to his last words in the film: “Let them out there read my mind”. Read away.
I love the line delivered by Noah Taylor before the ‘final scenario’: “Forgive me, if I’m blowing your mind”. If this film works for you, as it does for me, you’ll get that “cinematic buzz” that Cameron Crowe was aiming for. It is no small feat that Tom Cruise is primarily responsible for holding this all together onscreen and one can only hope that he reinvests in this type of filmmaking after the Knight and Day type pictures he has to make to maintain that persona that allows him the freedom to consider projects like this one…