Men. Women. A man who transforms into a woman across several centuries. A bi-millennial vampire drained of inspiration. A cryogenic company CEO in the year 2151. A crime-covering mother. A conniving lawyer. The White Witch. A balleticwitch. Gabriel the Archangel. The Ancient One. Social Services. Twin sisters. Amy Schumer’s boss.
Since 1986, Tilda Swinton’s unparalleled eclecticism has enlivened stories about drinkers, sailors, soldiers, spies and so much more. This month, Midwest Film Journal staffers and contributors look back at the wild, weird and wonderful ways this Oscar-winning actress and international treasure keeps it going Tilda Break of Dawn.
Audrey Cobb is surprisingly normal.
A registered nurse and mother to thumb-sucking Justin, Audrey’s professional normalcy is a stark contrast to her obvious stunted development in director Mike Mills’ 2005 directorial debut, Thumbsucker.
Normalcy is not the first word that comes to mind when you think of Academy Award-winning actress Tilda Swinton, a chameleon-like performer who manages to make the absurd seem sane and the most outrageous character feel like the girl, or boy, next door.
In short, Tilda Swinton can fly herself directly into the eye of a cinematic hurricane and portray peace within that chaos.
It started with her frequent collaborations alongside the late Derek Jarman, from her first movie role in 1986’s Caravaggio to, perhaps most notably, 1991’s Edward II. In 2007’s Michael Clayton, Swinton picked up both an Academy Award and a BAFTA as Best Supporting Actress for portraying Karen Crowder, a high-strung attorney for a corrupt firm. It was one of Swinton’s earliest studio flicks, though like much of Swinton’s work it felt experimental, intimate and decidedly anti-studio.
There have been other memorable portrayals, of course.
In 1992, she teamed up with director Sally Potter to bring life to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. She has worked with Luca Guadagnino multiple times including the remarkable I Am Love and, more recently, Guadagnino’s remake of Suspiria. The lack of an Academy Award for Lynne Ramsey’s We Need to Talk About Kevin continues to confound while Swinton seems a natural, and was a natural, for Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. The same year she worked with Jarmusch, she was just as remarkable in Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer.
She’s shown up in everything from no-budget indies to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Quite simply, Tilda Swinton is one of those rare performers who makes every single film she works on a better motion picture and you never, never, never seem to know what to expect from her.
Well, except for normalcy. That just seems so weird.
The truth is that Swinton has always seemed to have a rather weird aura around her. She appears to be simultaneously intimidating yet also the kind of actress you’d love to join for a cup of tea. It’s Swinton’s ability to immerse herself in these conflicting personas that makes her so incredibly sublime as Audrey in Thumbsucker, a film with such an unusual story that it’s hard to believe it’s not a John Waters film.
It’s not. Based on a 1999 novel by Walter Kim, Thumbsucker introduced the world to director Mills and to a young Lou Taylor Pucci, whose performance as 17-year-old Justin Cobb is filled with poignancy and such incredible nuance that it’s difficult to believe this was Pucci’s cinematic debut.
For such an unusual film, Thumbsucker finds Tilda Swinton once again doing what Swinton does best — being the calm within the storm that surrounds her.
Swinton’s Audrey is a registered nurse yet she’s the kind of registered nurse who makes you wonder if she got into nursing to heal herself. Emotionally distant, she’s not so quietly fascinated with actor Matt Schramm (Benjamin Bratt), a cheeseball actor with whom she obsessively tries to win a “date.” The red flags go up when she’s transferred to the upscale rehab facility where Schramm just so happens to have admitted himself.
On the surface, Audrey is a one-note caricature. She’s a cartoon, really. She’s paper-thin and sort of wafts her way through the fantasy land that Mills creates in Thumbsucker. Yet as she’s done so many times before and so many times since, Swinton turns Audrey into something much, much more. We’re used to the actress being quirky and different and outrageous, but in Thumbsucker she brings a pronounced normalcy to an abnormal world and humanizes the thumb-in-cheek nature of her son’s oral challenges and her own developmentally inappropriate yet deeply felt human foibles.
Pucci is masterful here as Justin, whose thumb-sucking is portrayed as immature by the adults around him who are obviously projecting their own neuroses onto him.
Justin’s father, Mike (Vincent D’Onofrio), borders on abusive in his treatment of Justin over his thumb-sucking yet never quite grasps the ways in which his own paternal neglect fails to provide Justin with anything resembling a healthy coping skill.
Even Justin’s dentist, Dr. Perry (Keanu Reeves), is a hipster with a disdain for professionalism and a boundary-violating belief that his hypnosis, or even worse Justin’s soon to be discovered spirit animal, will help Justin stop sucking his thumb.
When hypnosis makes matters worse, Justin embraces his diagnosis of attention-deficit disorder and a Ritalin-like medication that at first seems to help before eventually causing a detour that eventually turns him into someone he doesn’t like even as his dream girl, Rebecca (Kelli Garner), starts to pay attention to him in a weirdly curious kind of way.
There’s something special that happens along the way.
Justin learns that everyone has flaws and, just maybe, that the journey is about learning how to live with each other’s flaws rather than looking for easy solutions or feeling the need to change ourselves and those around us.
It’s a simple lesson, really, but it’s at the heart of Thumbsucker and it’s at the heart of Swinton’s simple yet breathtakingly normal, endearing performance — where she makes us realize that while she’s not perfect, she’s pretty amazing and she’s far more loyal than Justin ever knew and loving enough to let him go to his dream college even though she can’t stand the thought of it.
There are two moments in Thumbsucker that bring me to tears, both involving Audrey and both involving Swinton’s remarkable ability to communicate as much in the silence as she does with her words. In both scenes, she’s simply sitting there in conversation with Justin and there’s an extended silence where you can simply feel how much she loves her son even if she’s not particularly great at finding words. In the final moment, she finds those words and I weep even thinking about them now.
Thumbsucker is a flawed film with a remarkable story. Mills’ insistence on incorporating fantasy sequences feels forced and artificial, a stark contrast to the film’s otherwise honest storytelling and deep emotions. Originally set to feature an Elliott Smith soundtrack, which would have been spot-on perfect, Smith passed away before filming was complete and the film’s entire tone shifted with the Polyphonic Spree replacing all but three of Smith’s tunes. There’s still something beautiful about these flaws, though. There’s something beautiful and real and honest about Pucci’s journey toward self-acceptance and D’Onofrio’s journey toward self-revelation. There’s something inspired by Reeves’s Dr. Perry realizing he’s not meant to be a stuffy professional and there’s something wonderful about Vince Vaughn’s turn as a debate coach who wants to win until he realizes the cost. There’s even something beautiful about Garner’s honest take on Rebecca, whose replacement as the debate team’s star leads her down a path of sex and drugs but not rock n’ roll.
Then, there’s Swinton. She’s not the star of the motion picture, but she’s the emotional foundation in all her glorious normalcy and fierce mama spirit. She’s a flawed mama, but she’s a fierce mama and by the end of Thumbsucker, you’ll love those flaws and those quirks and those imperfect places inside this perfectly delightful human being who loves you even when she can’t find the words to say so.