Daniel Clowes, adapting his own graphic novel into the screenplay of Wilson, came to the attention of the mainstream public with 2001’s Ghost World, also written for the screen from his own rich source material. Even now Ghost World, with its central pair of teenage hipsters, still reads as a fresh and genuine account of two characters that choose to stand apart from the world in an attempt to showcase their superiority. With 2017’s Wilson, one of Clowes’ most beloved characters is brought to life, sharing the same sardonic and patronising outlook that seems to be a staple of his protagonist’s worldview. Vomiting out insults and condescensions regarding subjects such as suburbia (“a living death”) and technology, he seems on the surface to be an unsympathetic mess of neuroses but, as always with Clowes, this mask of condescension hides a deeper, more melancholic, malaise towards life.
Despite Craig Johnson, the astute director of another Sundance breakout hit The Skeleton Twins, taking the reigns here, Clowes nevertheless feels like the true auteur of Wilson. His script, bouncing around with pitch perfect irony between dark comedy and existential tragedy, is bookended by deaths (his father and his dog, in that order) that expose the character of Wilson as more than just a simple misanthrope. Played with a great blend of bullishness and empathy by the perpetually ageless Woody Harrelson, the first great loss sends him off on an picaresque journey that sees him attempting a last gasp reconciliation with his estranged ex-wife, discovering that he has a sixteen year old daughter and concluding with a trip to prison. All of this leaves him with a host of questions as to where he, such an enlightened member of society, could have possibly gone wrong and an audience simultaneously enraged by him yet now emotionally entangled in his miserable situation.
Clowes’ script is one that seems to have great affection for not only Wilson but all of his supporting cast too, lending a multitude of dimensions to what may otherwise be stock characters orbiting around our titular churl. This gives the actors room to gleefully relax into their roles, the ever-affable and zealous Laura Dern plays off Harrelson with a patience and virtue to be admired whilst neighbour Judy Greer, so often relegated to scene stealing cameos, spends a large portion of the film as a wonderfully empathetic audience surrogate slowly beginning to figure Wilson out. Some of us may eventually come to the conclusion that he is an unsalvageable irritant but that is often where the darkness seeps into Clowes’ world; just because we dislike somebody, does that mean we should ignore them?
Wilson‘s visual style is one of simplicity built on a foundation of immense detail. Johnson makes the comfortable but sensible decision to frame each shot as extremely static, keeping the action within the frame and imitating the panel style of Wilson’s original home, the comic book. What is most impressive about this choice is the amount of fun Johnson seems to have with utilising his editing as a visual punchline that flows smoothly along with the more overt, and often unsuspectingly hilarious, dialogue. An uncomfortable scene at a urinal, for instance, comes so close to a comfortable resolution before Wilson typically subverts polite society to compliment a man on his genitals. At another point, Harrelson utilises his knack for physical comedy by getting caught in a barrage of balloons and struggling to escape. So often comedy can get diverted by its more melancholic moments but Wilson has a keen enough visual aura to weave the two together without creating a jarring juxtaposition of tone.
In this regard, the film it most closely resembles may be Maren Ade’s recent sublime dramedy Toni Erdmann. The overall tone of Wilson may be a little more jaded but both films are fuelled by the death of a close relative/pet and a protagonist who foolishly uses his daughter to give himself a purpose. Seeing men so desperate for meaning, loving relationships and companionship in their lives drop their emotional baggage on the ones they claim to love will never be an easy watch but, especially in Wilson’s case, their seemingly oblivious nature means that the situation is ripe for humanist, pitch black humour. Do not be alarmed, however, if you find yourself agreeing with Wilson at times. His assessment that “Life is lonely, miserable and hard. I’m just lucky I figured it out a long time ago” is a bold statement to make but one you cannot help but be impressed to hear. Not content with merely creating comic book personas, Clowes knows that, much as we might want to reject this thought, there might just be a little Wilson in all of us.
Wilson is screening as part of Sundance London over the weekend of 1-4 June. For more information, visit the Picturehouse website. Wilson will be in UK screens from 9th June.