Nobody else could fit the role of a crestfallen rocker that Paul Dano embodies in director So Yong Kim's remarkable "For Ellen." Kim's delicate feature takes the conventional deadbeat dad formula and rejuvenates it by letting Dano's naturalistic performance lead the way. The actor portrays a perpetually lost young man with a combination of innocence and utter confusion as he wanders through his life in a total daze. It's a role he was born to play and the movie sustains it.
Sporting a clichéd getup of black-painted fingernails, scrungy hair and an unkempt goatee, Dano's Joby wanders through an icy landscape attempting to preempt the efforts of his estranged wife (Jena Malone), who wants to divorce him and take custody of their young daughter. Kim, whose patient approach to narrative has already found its groove with "Treeless Mountain" and "In Between Days," here applies the same style to Dano's sad face and the void around him. Notably, while he yells at a former bandmate over the phone and frequently references his career, he only picks up an instrument on one occasion and never plays a song.
Set against a snowy backdrop, "For Ellen" takes its time establishing Joby's hopeless routine, adding a literal touch in the opening minutes when he smashes his car on the side of the road. Several scenes drag by before his main conundrum becomes clear. Facing down his wife and her lawyer, Joby earnestly pleads his case, but his lawyer pal (Jon Heder, more subdued than ever before) provides little support. As Joby gradually sinks to deeper levels of desperation, Kim resists opening up the story to many new details and instead simply observes her angry antihero. Dano rises to the challenge.
Whether practicing his rock-star moves in an empty bar or placing frantic calls to wife, Joby lives in a bleak reality of his own making — until he manages to escape during the movie's enlivening second half. Intentionally sluggish for the first hour, "For Ellen" springs to life when Joby finally makes an attempt to contact his titular daughter, taking extreme measures that, for the time being, miraculously pay off.
The later segment of "For Ellen," which exclusively focuses on the uneasy time that Joby spends with his confused kid (Shaylena Mandigo, whose credible turn recalls Kim's previous work with child actors in "Treeless Mountain"), neatly complements the dry, solemn feeling of the first half. Still a loser, Joby now has something to lose, and does all he can to hold onto her.
Ellen's absence at the beginning of the movie defines the aimless nature of Joby's world: He's constantly searching to fill a missing presence in his creaky surroundings, and fails to confront his flawed behavior because he can't see past the futile options immediately in front of him. Devoid of a soundtrack or transparent speeches, "For Ellen" turns Joby's conundrum into a dense, layered experience so vivid you can touch it, making his plight relatable without excusing his shortcomings.
After Kim positions Dano in closeup for much of the running time, the tragic final shot views the character from a distance, driving home the idea that Joby still feels remote from his problems and incapable of finding a specific solution. Even when Kim opens the door for improvement, Joby still manages to ruin the party, a cold truth that comes crashing home with a stunning cut to black.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Although Dano has some marketability, the movie's low-key style is likely to alienate a lot of critics and audiences. Some supportive word-of-mouth could propel the movie to solid numbers on VOD.