Greatish Performances #48

mila kunis greatish

#48 — Mila Kunis as Lily in Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010)

When my past assertions that Mila Kunis delivers one of the strongest performances — maybe the strongest performance — in Black Swan were met with surprise of even derision, I had a brief, glib explanation at the ready: She’s the only person in the film bothering to play a character recognizable as a genuine human being for the duration of Darren Aronofsky’s deliberately bonkers ballet drama. The animosity embedded in the sentiment unfortunately implies faint praise, so let me try a different approach. As Lily, the cohort, confidante, competitor, and confusing crush to ascending ballerina Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), Kunis is keenly attentive and subtly unpredictable.

My previous shorthand celebration of Kunis’s performance does hint at an important narrative-assisting chore that she does exceedingly well. As Aronofsky’s storytelling soars is swooping circles ever higher under the power of waxen wings, Lily is in a constant mode of assessment. Kunis plays Lily’s reactions artfully, signalling that Lily is sizing up scenarios and the people moving perilously through them. Kunis occasionally comes across as sly or cunning, with a discombobulating tendency to shift quickly into mere playfulness. In more leaden ways, Lily is a mirror of Nina in the narrative (Kunis got cast in the role despite very limited dramatic film work to that point in large part because of her vague resemblance to Portman). In Kunis’s rendering, sometimes seemingly apart from Aronofsky’s thesis, Lily is yet another side of Nina that has gotten lost, seeing and experiencing the same tests of the psyche without succumbing to them. Kunis projects personal certainty, the very quality that Portman’s Nina most lacks.

Part of the character’s evident strength is attributable to the rascally sense of humor Kunis brings to the role. Every other performer in Black Swan subscribes to the operatic excess of Aronofsky’s vision, unable to totally shed the floridness. Kunis seems constantly on the verge of whispering, “Let’s get out of here,” maybe to her costars or maybe to the audience, and absconding to a more sedate neighboring film to sip red wine and indulge in amused eye rolls. Rather than giving Kunis a disruptive air of disengagement, the veneer of pending escape paradoxically embeds her deeper in Black Swan. As mania shimmers across the film, Kunis remains clear and solid, unmoved by the bombastic shenanigans. She’s stays put, providing the useful reminder of realness amid the fantastical. Without the real, the fantasy has no impact, especially when the outcomes grow more dire. It is the authenticity of Kunis’s emotions — her enthusiasm, her razor-edged sarcasm, her suspicion, her offhand warmth — that gives the film its weight.

Whether it’s directorial intent or the sharp instincts of an actor slipping through and offering a lucky countermeasure (I have cause to believe its the latter), Kunis provides a beautifully natural performance in Black Swan. I believe in the person she plays. Thanks to the easygoing worldliness Kunis brings to the role, I can imagine Lily apart from the confines of the narrative, living a life before and after this notably fraught production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. For me, she exists apart from the existential circus. Under the circumstances, I can think of few more impressive acting accomplishments.

Previously….

About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move
#31 — Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight
#32 — Essie Davis in The Babadook
#33 — Ashley Judd in Heat
#34 — Mira Sorvino in Mimic
#35 — James Gandolfini in The Mexican
#36 — Evangeline Lilly in Ant-Man
#37 — Kelly Marie Tran in Star Wars: The Last Jedi
#38 — Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit
#39 — Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient
#40 — Katie Holmes in Pieces of April
#41 — Brie Larson in Short Term 12
#42 — Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums
#43 — Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings
#44 — Matthew Macfadyen in Pride & Prejudice
#45 — Peter Fonda in Ulee’s Gold
#46 — Raul Julia in The Addams Family
#47 — Delroy Lindo in Clockers

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