In defence of… Shia LaBeouf

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THERE are some things everybody loves; there are others everybody has seemingly agreed to hate. I’m George Jones, and I’m here to tell you why you’re wrong.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the world decided to turn against Shia LaBeouf. Was it in 2007, when the Michael Bay-directed Transformers turned him from a relative unknown into a household name? Or was it the following year, when he became indelibly associated with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull through his role as Mutt Williams? Regardless of exactly when the shift happened, by the time the first decade of the 21st Century had ended, Shia LaBeouf was to actors what Michael Bay was to directors – less a celebrity than a culturally agreed-upon target for the public’s free-floating rage.

The irony is that, before LaBeouf broke out, he was considered by those who knew of him to be an underappreciated talent. His performance in 2003’s Holes, as well as his starring role in the television series Even Stevens, showed him to be an actor with real potential, and even though Constantine and Disturbia were disappointing films, LaBeouf’s performances were solid. So why the hate?

It’s a simple matter of being in the wrong place – or rather, the wrong film  – at the wrong time. The two films that made LaBeouf famous were almost universally reviled, which means that the first time mass audiences became familiar with Shia LaBeouf, it was as that bloke with the silly name who shat on everyone’s childhood. As the saying goes, the thing about first impressions is that you only get to make one.

It’s a shame, really, that more people didn’t see Holes. Andrew Davis’ adaptation of Louis Sachar’s novel is an exceedingly well-made coming-of-age story that manages to take all the charm of its source material – child labour camps, poisonous lizards and onion-based soft drinks included – and translate it to the screen with only minor changes (something that few novel-to-film adaptations do).

If LaBeouf had become famous through his lead role as Stanley Yelnats, accidental shoe thief, then his reputation would be much improved, and his involvement in the Transformers films would be regarded as the standard bill-paying work that all actors do at some stage. Unfortunately, it was not to be.

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While we’re on the subject of Transformers and its seemingly infinite sequels – does anyone else see a double standard emerging? Why is it that Robert DeNiro can do a slew of forgettable family comedies and still be regarded as a legend, but when Shia LaBeouf does a few bad films it’s all he’s remembered for? I mean, Sir Michael Caine has been in more terrible films than Shia LaBeouf (Jaws: The Revenge, anyone?) and he’s still highly thought of among film fans – hell, he’s a knight.

Now, you might argue that both of those actors have been in far more good – and even great – films than everyone’s favourite actual cannibal; to which I reply, of course they have. They’re each more than twice LaBeouf’s age, and Michael Caine in particular has spent the last forty-odd years as one of this country’s most beloved actors. He has the kind of reputation that should get him whatever roles he wants, and still he was in Cars 2.

I haven’t seen Lawless or Fury, LaBeouf’s most well-reviewed recent films, but what I have seen is Nymphomaniac, and his role in that film is more than enough to make up for whatever poor-quality fare he’s appeared in over his – so far relatively short – career. The film as a whole is a masterpiece that stands out even in the stunning career of its director, the Danish provocateur Lars von Trier, but LaBeouf’s performance is excellent.

He was much maligned in the press for his accent, which slips between cockney, Australian, South African and something that has never been heard by human ears before, but ridiculous accents are kind of a tradition in von Trier’s films, from Bjork’s Dick van Dyke-esque accent in Dancer in the Dark (an especially perplexing decision given that the film appears to be set in America) to Nicole Kidman’s American accent in Dogville, which she gives up on around two hours in.

What really matters is the charisma LaBeouf brings to the screen; he’s so smoulderingly sexy that from the first moment he appears on screen we understand exactly why Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character falls for him, and his acting style perfectly complements the script. His performance is striking more because of what he doesn’t do than what he does; unlike most actors, LaBeouf never gives the impression that he’s, well, acting.

He delivers his lines as if he’s just talking, where most actors in a film as complex as Nymphomaniac would be straining to put as much into every line as possible. If you want to see why Shia LaBeouf is an actor worthy of a much better reputation than the one he has, watch Nymphomaniac: if that doesn’t convince you, nothing will.

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