Matt Damon Officially the Face of American Desperation, by Tyler Smith
It was recently announced that Matt Damon will be playing Dr. John R. Brinkley in the upcoming drama Charlatan. The film is the story of Brinkley’s fraudulent claim to have discovered the cure for impotence. Brinkley’s life certainly seems like it would make a great film, and while my first instinct wouldn’t be to cast Damon – a likable Hollywood leading man and genuine movie star – it actually makes a lot of sense.
While there has always been an all-American quality to Damon, in films like Good Will Hunting, The Rainmaker, and recently in The Martian, there has always been an odd subversive streak to his career. While his appearance in the Ocean movies and his role as Jason Bourne cemented his status in Hollywood, many of his more memorable roles have been those of deceivers, frauds, and rats.
Films like The Informant! and The Departed are some notable examples of Damon trading on his inherent likability in order to play men with a deep dark secret. His upcoming film Suburbicon continues this trend, as he portrays a bland-but-genial family man with something to hide. And his memorable supporting performances in True Grit and Interstellar suggest a strain of vanity and cowardice underneath the noble exterior.
And, of course, there is his chilling portrayal of Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley, in which his lovable, bespectacled earnestness veils a lethal ambition, mixed with a healthy dose of self loathing.
At the core of all of these characters is a constant, fearful desperation; men trying so hard to succeed, or at least appear successful, that they’re willing to do whatever it takes, no matter the moral compromise. This is, I think, a brave choice, as Damon commits to human behavior that many viewers have been trained to view with absolute disgust. In The Departed, Jack Nicholson may have been the guy you love to hate, but Damon was the guy you just hated.
Damon’s willingness to play genuinely contemptible characters – and to do so without a winking, distancing charm – has set him apart from other movie stars, and perhaps even most character actors. He seems to realize that humanity doesn’t simply consist of emotions and tendencies that people can get behind – such as basic happiness, sadness, anger, and the like – but a complex tapestry of feelings that we have all experienced, yet would readily condemn in others (and sometimes ourselves).
It seems a pretty sure thing that Damon, as the charismatic but disgraced doctor in Charlatan, will commit to every element of the character, both the good and the bad. And underneath it all will be a driving desperation that is uniquely American: the desire to be successful, respected, and happy, no matter what the cost.