"As for me, I'm just goin' with it".
Emile Hirsch is on his way to becoming one of the most promising actors of his generation by means of nuanced, versatile, and indelible performances. He's also a bona fide Hollywood heartthrob due to his emerald-green eyes, sculpted cheekbones, attractive self-confidence, and a slight resemblance to peers like Leonardo DiCaprio or Stephen Dorff. His most recent roles are far from the usual action hero/hottie archetype. He recently appears as San Francisco gay activist Cleve Jones in Gus Van Sant's biographical Milk, and has an upcoming role in Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock, which just wrapped up in post-production and in which Hirsch plays an unhinged Vietnam vet at the historic Woodstock Festival.
In his first important roles in indie cinema — 2003's The Mudge Boy and 2004's Imaginary Heroes — Hirsch raised his intense but subdued acting bar by portraying eccentric, sexually charged suburban boys trapped in the cinders of adolescence.
Another quality that makes Hirsch so special in his celluloid adventures is the magnetism he shares with all his love interests in his films, as we can see in this interview:
Q: Is there something you can enjoy – besides all the nerves – while doing a love scene in a movie?
Hirsch: Oh totally. I loved it. It's totally romantic. To me, it's a very intimate thing.
One of the most memorable of Emile Hirsch's characters to date is undoubtedly Chris McCandless (Into the Wild), a young adventurer who runs away from society and who meets Tracy Tatro (Kristen Stewart, Bella in Twilight) in a hippie community. Their too brief flirtation is sweet in a way that brings to mind classic cinema romances.
Tracy: I'm terrible.
Chris: You are not terrible. You sing sweet.
In the film, which was written and directed by Sean Penn and based on John Krakauer's book, Tracy (a young musician) invites Chris to go take a walk to Salvation Mountain, where a wildly optimistic old man lectures the couple on love's power.
Chris: You really believe in love, then.
Old man: Yeah. Totally. This is a love story that is staggering to everybody in the whole world.
When asked what year she was born in, she tells Chris that she's only 16.
Chris leaves behind his calisthenics and reading and makes his plans for Alaska in consonance with Jack London's Odyssey of the North. His progressive lack of discernment allows him to abandon his inchoate crush on Tracy after having played a duet with her guitar and Chris' second-hand organ from Rainey (Brian Dierker) and Jan Burress (Catherine Keener). They sang "Angel from Montgomery":
Make me an angel
Just give me one thing
That I can hold on to
To believe in this living
Is just a hard way to go
Rainey had confided to Chris that Tracy is lusting after him — "That poor girl's just about ready to vault herself onto a fencepost" — but he declines to make advances on her. Chris tells Tracy that he finds her pretty magical just before departing for his great adventure in Alaska.
Chris calls himself Alexander Supertramp (his errant alter-ego): "Ultimate freedom. An extremist. An aesthetic voyager whose home is the road", he writes down, "no longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild."
Inside the magical bus (brought in by a mining company) which becomes Chris's home in Alaska, he writes in his diary: "DAY 100 – MADE IT. BUT IN WEAKEST CONDITION OF LIFE. TOO WEAK TO WALK OUT. HAVE LITERALLY BECOME TRAPPED IN THE WILD". Shaking in pain due to starvation, he vacillates for an instant about using his rifle to end his life, but he just starts to scream out instead, anticipating in his agony the future slain warrior he's quickly transmuting into. Far behind the memories of Chris McCandless as the Emory College graduate possessed by the spirit of Thoreau, who couldn't cope with the stresses of family life and capitalist society's dark side, now triumphant in his battle of de-individuation and his eyes brimming with tears, his stomach heaving, he is waiting for an imminent death.
Sean Penn's cinematic tachisme washes us in existential romanticism and we learn a cathartic lesson about forgiveness, deism, and love (how Chris's rejection of love led him to misery and isolation). In his final fevered moments he learns this lesson even more clearly in a heartrending revelation about shared happiness (a hopeful sentence scribbled across a page) during his death throes. This theory, which differs from Krakauer's poisonous berries conclusion, makes this story more unresolved and enigmatic.
In Peter Care's The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (2002) Hirsch plays Francis Doyle and Jena Malone plays the conflicted Margie Flynn, his first love interest in this coming of age story situated in a suffocating Catholic school. Margie falls prey to an incestuous fantasy with her brother Donnie that has led her to a suicide attempt. Francis draws comic strips portraying Margie as a romantic heroine who represents a contrast with the indomitable side of Margie's amoral explorations which Francis feels he can't control. The nameless idea of femininity turns into an epic fantasy character in the drawings while Francis is engulfed by a real girl who is ready to love him. "After the male fish hatch, they bite onto a female, like parasites. But after a while they grow into each other and share the same blood and everything… They turn into one single fish," is the example Francis uses to expound how he's already forgiven Margie's past secrets. In this scene Hirsch's understated performance slowly unfolds an irreversible maturation process before Malone's and our eyes.
In The Girl Next Door (2004) Hirsch plays Matthew Kidman, a meritorious senior who has been accepted into Georgetown University, but needs to compete for a full scholarship. He has a boy scout's moral fiber, but irrupting his taedium vitae, the girl next door, Danielle (Elisha Cuthbert), appears out of nowhere and hereupon Matt begins to fight for Danielle, who formerly worked as porn star and is tempted to return.
Matt is challenged to change his point of view in the process of dating Danielle, and Hirsch communicates these changes in a completely believable, approachable way: "You risk it all, you put her in front of everything, your life, all of it. And maybe the stuff you do to help her isn't so clean. You know what? It doesn't matter. Because in your heart you know that the juice is worth the squeeze. That's what moral fiber's all about."
Two scenes stood out in the romantic plot of The Girl Next Door, one in a motel at midnight, in which Hirsch manages to pass in a few minutes from cocky to ashamed when he's reproached by Danielle: "Isn't this what you want? To fuck a porn star in a cheap motel room?"
The second, more emotive, one is when Matthew remembers (in a dressing room) at the prom the happy moments shared with Danielle and suddenly he feels incapable of shooting a porno scene. He realizes that in spite of not knowing what he's going to do next in his life doesn't matter because he's already fallen in love. Hirsch's smile when Danielle enters and they make eye contact is gigantic in its frankness.
The Girl Next Door is a romantic comedy that has silly moments and suffers from a music video aesthetic in places, but it makes its point of taking a second chance on winning the girl of your dreams with appropriate heartiness and without mawkishness.
In Lords of Dogtown (2005), directed by Catherine Hardwicke, based on Stacey Peralta's documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys, Hirsch plays the real-life skateboarder Jay Adams, nailing his actual swagger, looking like a rugged River Phoenix. Not only does he perform the risky moves on the board at Venice Beach with vertiginous ease, but he also seduces Kathy Alva (Nikki Reed, Thirteen) in a dance as smooth and charming as his skating.
In Alpha Dog (2006), Hirsch plays a gangster wannabe, Johnny Truelove (aka Jesse James Hollywood in real life) who goes out with his steady girlfriend, Angela Holden (Olivia Wilde), while his savvy father Sonny (Bruce Willis) mocks his masculinity, a big deal for Johnny's posse (ridiculous, tweaked out guys who follow Johnny's orders blindly). Johnny gets involved in an improvised kidnapping that ends tragically for an impressionable kid (Zack Mazursky in the movie, played brilliantly by Anton Yelchin).
Among all kind of misdeeds and criminal events in this mixed-up story, Johnny and his girl's relationship is key to analyze some of the sick aspects that bedevil the upper-middle class in California's Valley. In a motel room, Johnny's small vestiges of conscience bring down his sexual bravado and he has to give up on hitting the sack with an insensitive, demanding, bimbo-esque Angela — in a scene which is intermittently comical and sleazy — and this act of impotence by the macho posturing bad-ass is a symbol of his bacchanal's last days.
Nick Cassavetes’ writing and direction in Alpha Dog is a mix of documentary style and gritty cautionary tale (likewise Bully by Larry Clark). Alpha Dog manages to display an absurdist sense of humor that makes it more disturbing. Hirsch's distanced performance helps to blur the boundaries between the gangster-poseur and the real crook, unveiling a phoniness that adds a chameleon-like quality to Hirsch's range.
And much more chaste but very funny is Hirsch's interaction with Christina Ricci (Trixie) in Speed Racer (2008) by the Wachowski Brothers, a deliriously visual car ride saturated in febrile colours and stroboscopic effects. The anime-styled characterizations are based on the Japanese manga racer Mach GoGoGo adapted in the '60s in its American version.
Speed is a wholesome, starry-eyed racing hero who refuses Royalton Industries' tempting offer and determines to win a futuristic automobile race. His girlfriend is the cheerful and kitschy-looking Trixie.
Speed: But when I'm in a T-180, I don't know, everything just makes sense.
Trixie: So are you saying this doesn't make sense?
Speed: Okay, this makes sense too.
Curiously, in this driving scene, Hirsch comes off more flirtatious than the ultra-girly Christina, which proves how much Speed is into her; although his official passion is driving, Trixie drives him more than crazy. Speed promises Trixie he'll hold her in his arms and kiss her in front of multitudes if he wins the gizmobiles Prix: "Maybe at the end of some big race, when I pull into Victory Lane… I scoop you up and kiss you, with thousands of flashbulbs going off."
It's the subtle touch of Hirsch, when he leans and kisses the girl, that we file in our mental archives, that image freezes and never disappears.