I love Wes Bentley: a long journey through one actor’s interesting CV

I’m not a person who does things by halves. At heart, I’m kind of a fangirl, I guess; the list of things I’ve become fascinated with, over the years, is very very long, but includes Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, Keats, The Hunger Games, and the films of Nicolas Cage. Actually, this tendency to become fascinated with very specific things is probably the reason I’m rubbish at pub quizzes; all my knowledge is highly specialised and utterly useless out of context. But there’s a kind of fun to be had from immersing yourself completely in something for a period of time, and paying very close attention to things; you notice things you never would otherwise. (Let’s set aside, for the moment, the question of whether it’s really worth knowing about the background continuity in the Saw movies.)

My most recent fascination, then, is with the films of Wes Bentley. The origins of this particular fascination can be traced to two films in which Bentley has significant, but not leading, roles: The Hunger Games and Ghost Rider. I love both films – Ghost Rider was the movie that sparked the Nicolas Cage fascination, too – and I think, somewhere in my head, some of the overabundance of affection I have for those movies got transferred over to Bentley. A few months ago, for no particular reason, I also rewatched American Beauty (the DVD was cheap; I hadn’t seen it in a decade; and I couldn’t really remember much about it other than lots of people raved about it and there was an awesome Adam and Joe parody of it). I wasn’t intending to start any kind of long-running movie-watching project, but seeing those three films in relatively quick succession sowed a seed. I didn’t know anything about Wes Bentley beyond those three movies, but I liked them all, so I decided to check out some more of his work.

I’ve seen seventeen Wes Bentley movies now, all over the past couple of weeks. He’s made more, but those are all the ones that have been released on DVD so far, barring Underworld: Evolution (in which he has an uncredited cameo), Jonah Hex (which I’ve seen before and hated) and Beloved (in which he’s “Schoolteacher’s Nephew”). I’ve seen some films I kind of wish I hadn’t; I’ve also discovered a couple of new favourites that I probably would never have watched otherwise. And I… kind of find Bentley fascinating. In the last couple of years, he’s publicly admitted that, following the success of American Beauty, he freaked out and ended up becoming a drug addict; he flaked out of various projects, and took on others purely to pay the bills. He’s obviously very talented, and some of his performances are amazing, but other times he barely seems alive onscreen. And some of his choices are just weird, all things considered.

This is a long post, and it probably won’t be of interest to anyone other than, er, me, and maybe some other Wes Bentley fans. I’m sorry. You don’t have to read this. But – y’know. I did this crazy thing, so I’m going to write about it.

The Good
Right, let’s start with the good films Bentley’s made. Obviously, there’s American Beauty (1999). Saying American Beauty is a good film isn’t exactly controversial – it won 5 Oscars, for starters, and it’s currently ranked at #45 on the IMDB’s list of highest rated movies. I kind of expected to be underwhelmed by it, but it’s one of the few films that really lives up to its hype. This was the film that made Wes Bentley a star, and he’s great in it, awkward and adorable and creepy and weird and vulnerable and generally awesome. This would be the best film he’s ever made, were it not for Weirdsville.

Directed by Empire Records helmer Allan Moyle, Weirdsville (2007) is a low-budget Canadian indie film about drug dealers, Satanists, and a stolen safe. Which doesn’t sound particularly promising, but trust me, it’s amazing. It’s a fantastic script, full of weird and wonderful ideas and characters that all, ultimately, tie together neatly – even just from a structure perspective, it’s pretty impressive. And, well, it feels kind of wrong to praise Wes Bentley for playing a drug addict, but he is fantastic as the slightly addled Royce; he’s actually surprising good at comedy. Weirdsville might be one of my favourite movies ever. It’s just brilliant.

Slightly less brilliant, and also more controversially, I’m going to put both Ghost Rider (2007) and P2 (2007) in the “good” section of this list. I’ve already mentioned my love for Ghost Rider, and although Bentley’s performance is, um, kind of ridiculous (“I am Legion. We are maaaaaaaaany!”) I can’t help but enjoy it. The plot is paper thin, yes, but there’s just so much joy to be found in Nicolas Cage running around drinking jelly beans and turning into a skeleton on fire while Bentley hams it up as the son of the devil. I’ve seen Ghost Rider a zillion times, and every time I think maybe I’ll finally realise why everyone else hates it, but I can’t stop loving it.

P2 also sees Bentley playing a villain, and it’s almost as daft. The premise of P2 is that a lonely car park attendant has become obsessed with a woman who works in the building upstairs, and traps her in the car park on Christmas Eve in a desperate attempt to make her love him. Most of the film is just Rachel Nichols running around a car park while Wes Bentley tries to feed her Christmas dinner. At one point, Bentley mimes along with Elvis’s Blue Christmas. He also dons a Santa suit for one scene. It’s bonkers. I love it. I’m going to watch it every Christmas Eve forever.

So, what else? The Last Word (2008) is another of Bentley’s sad-and-intense performances; the marketing for this movie made it look like a rom-com, which it kind of is, except that it’s devastating. Bentley plays Evan, a deeply damaged poet who makes his living composing suicide notes for people who want to kill themselves. He meets the sister of one of his clients at a funeral and embarks on a bizarre romance with her, and it all ends in tears. I’m not sure this one required a lot of acting; Bentley seems to be on autopilot for much of the film, letting his ridiculously huge eyes do most of the work, but it’s pretty good nonetheless.

Finally, there’s The Hunger Games (2012), in which he plays the fantastically bearded Seneca Crane. Since Crane isn’t really in much of the book, Bentley gets to make up the character for himself, and he does a pretty good job, playing Crane as sort of naive and cocky, totally unaware of the danger he himself is in. I’m a Hunger Games fangirl, and I basically loved this movie.

The Bad
Now for the not-so-good movies in Bentley’s oeuvre. (I think I maybe needed a “mediocre” category, but I might be being overly kind to some of these films). Three Below Zero (1998) was Wes Bentley’s first full length movie, and I’m hesitant to call it bad, even though it is, really, kind of terrible. The premise is that three people have accidentally become locked in the underground laundry room of their apartment building, and, in the course of getting to know one another, start acting in utterly bizarre ways. The film’s strangest moment is the sex scene between a baby-faced Bentley and Grey’s Anatomy’s Kate Walsh; it’s just odd. The cop out ending is disappointing but kind of necessary. There’s something very watchable about this film, but it’s not good.

Jumping forward a few years, there’s The Four Feathers (2002), a lavish adaptation of a 1902 novel about a British officer who leaves the army just before his regiment is shipped out to fight in Egypt, and has to prove that he isn’t a coward. It’s an incredible film to look at, but it’s kind of too jingoistic and silly to really stand up. Bentley plays the best friend who’s continually screwed over, and does a passable English accent (with some occasional slips). It’s, y’know, alright.

Similarly, The Game of Their Lives (2005) is a sports movie about the 1950 American World Cup team, who won a game against England and… yeah, that’s basically it? Bentley plays an uptight football player who has to cede leadership of his team to the rougher and readier Gerard Butler. It’s okay. It’s kind of overlong and a bit dull.

Speaking of dull, though, brings me to The Claim (2000). The Claim might be the most boring film ever made. It’s two hours long but feels like it goes on for decades. Loosely based on a Thomas Hardy novel, it’s about a man who, in the gold rush, sold his wife and daughter for a working claim, and then has a breakdown when they come back into his life years later. Bentley plays a railroad surveyor, and, despite sporting an impressive beard, doesn’t really do much of interest.

Finally, in the category of ‘Wes Bentley movies that aren’t good but which I am inexplicably willing to defend at least a little bit’, there’s Ligeia (2009). (It’s been retitled The Tomb in some territories, for fairly obvious reasons.) Based on a short story by Edgar Allen Poe, Ligeia sees Wes Bentley playing a literature professor who attracts the attention of the titular Ligeia, a kind of witch who’s found a way to live forever by stealing other people’s souls. Since Bentley is apparently “vibrating with sexual energy” (that’s an actual quote) she steals him from his fiancée and sets up home with him in Ukraine. It’s utterly bonkers but it has some nice photography and some snappy dialogue and it’s sort of guiltily entertaining in spite of itself.

The Ugly
Unfortunately, Wes Bentley has also made a lot of movies that are outright terrible. Terrible beyond the imagining of it. Right from the beginning of his career, he’s made some questionable choices: The White River Kid (1999) was actually shot before American Beauty, and has languished in deserved obscurity ever since. It features Bob Hoskins as a fake priest, Antonio Banderas as a law-obsessed illegal immigrant, and Wes Bentley as a backwoods serial killer with a butterfly tattooed on his cheek and a deeply held belief that some people are just “woollygumps” in disguise. It’s incredible that this film ever got made, and with so many legitimately famous people in it, too, because it’s a total mess in every respect.

Then there’s Soul Survivors (2001), a moronic teen horror where Bentley plays a horrible (and slightly rapey) college kid who causes all his friends to die in a car accident. It’s one of those films where the ending is supposed to be a reveal that all the events up until that point have been taking place in some kind of limbo, but it drops such massive hints that it’s not a surprise at all. And it’s godawful.

Also godawful is The Ungodly (2007), aka The Perfect Witness. It’s almost possible to see this as a kind of sequel to American Beauty, as Bentley plays Mickey, a drug addict who’s obsessed with filming everything – to the point where he tracks down a serial killer and ends up getting overly involved with his crimes. At no point is anything that happens in this movie remotely believable. It’s just bad.

Ditto Dolan’s Cadillac (2009), really. Based on a short story by Stephen King, it’s pretty much a straightforward revenge story that culminates in Wes Bentley burying Christian Slater alive. Bentley sleepwalks through most of this movie, only managing to come alive for the last 15 minutes or so, but most people probably will have switched the movie off by then because it’s so unbelievably tedious.

And that brings us to two of Bentley’s most recent movies, both of which are awful. Hirokin: The Last Samurai (2011) was actually shot a few years ago and only just released to cash in on the success of The Hunger Games. Despite the title, there are no samurai in this movie. Instead, there are aliens – but, conveniently for the low budget, aliens who look identical to humans except that the palms of their hands are veinier. Seriously. Bentley is half-human, half-alien, and has to try to bring the two peoples together and zzzzzzzzzz.

Finally, finally, there’s There Be Dragons (2011). It was during the making of this film that Bentley apparently started to get sober, so it’s a shame that it’s not better. He plays Manolo, the best friend of newly minted saint Josemaría Escrivá, and he’s just a complete dick for the entire film. For large parts of the movie, he’s also wearing makeup to make him look like an old man, and he’s speaking in a shonky Spanish accent – so, basically, they hired Wes Bentley and took the two things that make him stand out (his eyes and his voice) and hid them. Despite being a film about religion, it utterly lacks the courage of its convictions – and, possibly, the convictions themselves and it’s just another tedious mess.

So, um, after all that, what have I learned? I’ve learned that Wes Bentley isn’t capable of crying in movies. (Sometimes he gets misty-eyed, and sometimes he fake sobs, but there are never any actual tears.) I’ve learned that when he has to act angry or passionate in some way, he starts TALKINGREALLYFASTWITHOUTTAKINGABREATHANDHISVOICEGETSALLTIGHT. I’ve learned that he’s pretty bad at foreign accents, and usually slips back into his normal soft, slightly sibiliant, Southern-tinged tones. He frequently seems to end up in movies where women throw themselves at him, and usually his character has some kind of substance abuse problem, too. And he very, very rarely sings or dances.

It’s been a long few weeks. I think I’ve forgotten how to watch movies that don’t star Wes Bentley. I kind of feel like I need to sleep for a month.

2 Responses

  1. Really enjoyed reading this, although I am now gutted – I didn’t know there was a Dolan’s Cadillac film and really enjoyed the book, so I am most miffed it must be consigned to the list of Kings that should not have been. 😉

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