The dark and grounded approach of The Batman provides the possibility for truly groundbreaking performances from actors digging into the psychology of classic comic book characters. And such in-depth performances have always been Paul Dano’s specialty. Though the actor seldom performs in major box office draws, it’s easy to look over the extensive emotional depth of his past roles to see just how well Dano’s career prepared him for his turn as the Riddler. The actor may have a long career with tons of fascinating roles, but there are some that stand out ahead of the pack as Dano’s best performances.
Though Dano’s career started on Broadway and television, the 2004 psychological thriller Taking Lives, which starred Angelina Jolie and Ethan Hawke, served as an early hint at the roles Dano would later be known for. While playing the young version of Hawke’s character, Martin Asher, Dano planted many of the seeds to the psychologically complex character that drove him to murderous intent even from his very first scene.
Anyone looking back on Dano’s career is well-advised to watch the film for nothing else than the joy of seeing just how early on Dano’s talents manifested. Not only does Dano’s performance as the young Asher manage to mirror the older character as portrayed by Hawke, but the actor also puts his own distinct twist when it comes to Asher’s vulnerability that speaks to his development in the film.
Two years after Taking Lives, Dano enjoyed a much larger role in Little Miss Sunshine that served as the first time major audiences took notice of the actor in a big way. As the teenager Dwayne, committed to a self-imposed code of silence throughout the film to hone his discipline for one day becoming a fighter pilot, Dano proved just how much raw emotionality he could convey without any dialogue at all.
The nuance to the performance settled Dwayne into a place where he stood out even among a whole cast of quirky characters brought to life by powerful performances. When Dwayne finally does speak in the film, the built-up tension from his silence bursts forth in a display of acting that proved just how titanic Dano’s later roles would become.
The power of a performance is one of the major metrics of measuring the talents of an actor, but when it’s combined with range and versatility, it proves almost anything is possible. Dano does exactly that in There Will Be Blood, where he plays the identical twins Paul and Eli, who serve as both friend and foe to the protagonist, Daniel Day Lewis’ Daniel Plainview.
Lewis is widely considered one of the finest actors in Hollywood today, but Dano matches him pound for pound in the twin performances. Out of his two roles, Dano’s work as Eli proves the most dominant personality as his religious verve in delivering sermons and conniving tactics in trying to outmaneuver Plainview for the rights to an oil deposit provide ample evidence Dano has what it takes to work as a genius villain. Out of all his past roles, this may be one of the most important for seeing the experience most relevant to preceding his turn as the cunning Riddler.
Though most of Dano’s work tends toward character pieces and smaller-scale productions, his role in Looper stands out because it proves just how great his supporting work in action-centric features can be. His role as Seth provided a point of contrast to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Joe, hinting at how seriously the conflict between past and future selves in the head-spinning time travel plot could be.
It is far from unheard of for otherwise capable actors to tone down their performances when it comes to their work in features less likely to appeal to the more artistic or critical side of filmmaking, but Dano holds nothing back in doing everything he can with the supporting role as Seth.
It is evident even from the trailers and promotional materials that Dano’s twist on the Riddler conveys a psychopathic bent grounded in real-world murderers. Prisoners offers an extensive insight into Dano’s familiarity with such a role as he becomes the chief suspect Alex Jones, whose guilt throughout the film weaves in and out of certainty even as his sheer creepiness never wavers from doubt.
Much like his roles in There Will Be Blood, the shiftiness and ambiguity Dano instills in his performance as Jones provides an endlessly fascinating spectacle. The role is worth watching multiple times just for the sake of catching different degrees of nuance, especially given late story twists in Prisoners that shed new light on the murderous mysteries concerning Jones.
It’s clear that crafting psychologically compelling characters is Dano’s forte, but in Love & Mercy, the actor proves how capably he can do that even when the character is modeled after a real-world figure. As the frontman and lyrical genius behind many of The Beach Boys’ greatest hits, Wilson ascended to stardom even as his struggles with mental illness threatened to drag him down.
Much like with Taking Lives and Looper, Dano’s performance matches the portrayals of his character later in their life by different actors, which puts him in direct contrast with another performance. In the case of Love & Mercy, Dano’s companion is John Cusack, and the performances work in tandem to produce possibly the best feature in either actors’ career.
When it comes to being psychologically compelling, there can be grounded performances and there can be totally off-the-wall performances. Swiss Army Man sees Dano as an unhinged man seemingly stranded in the woods who forms a deep relationship with a corpse played by Daniel Radcliffe.
Since the role leaves little for Radcliffe to do, Dano carries the lion’s share of the work in the film as the twisted tale of survival takes him through an emotional journey sure to baffle any viewer about what exactly is going on. Though most of Dano’s other notable roles involve his strength as a supporting cast member, Swiss Army Man proved he could carry a film on his back practically alone and make a memorable and rewarding performance while doing it.
To see Dano’s turn as The Riddler, The Batman hits theaters March 4.
KEEP READING: How Robert Pattinson Helped Create a More Emotional Batman