One of the many beautiful women in the screenwriter’s life turns to him and says, “It’s time for you to tell me something interesting.” I suppose this line in Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups is included as a measure of the screenwriter’s empty world, his material success in Hollywood having come at the cost of spiritual blankness. But for a moment, the viewer might quicken to the possibility that something is going to happen in this movie—that the hero might say something definitive, or begin a story, or blurt out a need to visit the men’s room. But he will not, and the moment passes, as all the moments in the film pass—like sands through the hourglass, or tears in rain, or whatever other greeting-card profundity you want to offer.
Toward the end of last year, a friend and I were e-mailing about Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter. Released in mid-October, the film, a meditative journey along the boundary between life and death, had already done a fast fade as a commercial prospect (death is such a downer) and subject for awards speculation. My friend disdains Eastwood’s filmmaking as much as I mostly esteem it, but he agreed with me about one thing: he was “blown away” by Matt Damon’s performance. I said I thought it was the best of the year but feared it would be ignored come Oscar season. Not only was Damon’s character one among several focal figures in a film with several story threads—”He doesn’t speak with a British accent, and he doesn’t stammer.”
OK, that was glib. But also on point and, as a prediction, accurate. Damon wasn’t among the Academy Award nominees announced the morning of January 25. He rarely has been (Good Will Hunting, 1997; Invictus, 2009). Yet Matt Damon may be the best actor in movies these days, even if that superlative usually cues people to envision such worthies as Javier Bardem or Jeff Bridges or Johnny Depp. Damon has long since earned a place in their company, but neither he nor his work insists on it—as he doesn’t insist on his stardom. He’s mingled stellar turns in the likes of The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Departed, and the Bourne franchise with supporting and ensemble roles: Saving Private Ryan, Dogma, Syriana, the Ocean’s pictures, Invictus. That’s better than being the best actor. He’s the exemplary actor.