Daniel Clowes has been a legend in the field of comics for decades and the comic creator has had a fairly unusual relationship with Hollywood even amidst the comic book craze that has dominated pop culture. Of course, Clowes’ work don’t dabble in superheroes, but the mind behind Ghost World should be in more demand despite having not completed work on a movie since Art School Confidential over a decade ago. Finally, the mind of Daniel Clowes has returned to the silver screen with Wilson, the adaptation of the 2010 graphic novel which Clowes wrote the screenplay for Craig Johnson’s film. Wilson is a dark comedy with misanthropy oozing from its pores, but it is genuinely funny and moving throughout even if its dark turn towards the end will turn off a large number of viewers. If you know what to expect from a Daniel Clowes work, then Wilson will be an absolute delight to behold. However, if you disliked the dark turn in Art School Confidential, you might not be too pleased with the direction Wilson takes.
Wilson (Woody Harrelson) is a different kind of people person. He’s a loner that has his beloved dog Pepper. He believes that “modern civilization is a scam,” and that technology has driven people apart. Wilson will sit beside a stranger at a coffee shop busy working on their laptop only to start an unwanted conversation and then berate them when they’re not exactly eager to converse. Loneliness begins to catch up with Wilson when his best friend informs him that he and his wife are moving away, and soon Wilson is forced to face another emotional obstacle when his father succumbs to cancer. Soon Wilson tracks down his ex-wife Pippi (Laura Dern), and the two start to spend time together. Pippi is a recovering addict trying to get back on her feet. Things take a turn when Pippi reveals that the child that Wilson thought she aborted was alive and adopted, and the surprise invigorates Wilson to seek out his long lost teenage daughter Claire (Isabelle Amara). Of course, it’s not see easy to rekindle past loves and try to enter the life of a daughter left behind years ago, and Wilson is in for a rude awakening or two.
The character of Wilson is the latest of outsiders that Daniel Clowes has brought to the screen in a story where they’re searching for how they fit into the world. He’s a character that says he’s a people person yet is incredibly misanthropic in his daily interactions with people. Wilson is a character that sees himself as smarter than everybody around even if he isn’t a particularly brilliant individual. The entire character arc of Wilson is driven by the realization that his life isn’t working at present, and he enters into a dangerous quest to relive the best moments of his past to brighten his future.
The surliness of Wilson as a character is a constant source of hilarity as Harrelson relishes in the chance to exchange acerbic barbs at anyone who dares run afoul of his rigid code of conduct. Harrelson continues to deliver phenomenal work in a recent string of strong performances. He makes the harshest aspects of Wilson affable, something that’s not quite easy considering the character’s overwhelming misanthropic nature. Also standing out in Wilson is the always reliable Laura Dern. As Pippi, Dern delivers a performance that is supposed to be the struggling voice of reason to Wilson’s misguided enthusiasm, but the character’s history of substance abuse leaves her uncertain and often willing to go along with Wilson’s ill-conceived schemes. There’s a heartbreaking dynamic between these two characters that takes on another level when Isabelle Amara arrives as their angst-riddled teenage daughter.
The weakest aspect of Wilson comes from the rather mundane direction of Craig Johnson, who doesn’t bring much of a visual style to this comic book adaptation. Visually Wilson doesn’t do much to stand out from the pack, relying on Clowes’ screenplay adaptation of his comic book and the strong performances of the leads to carry the film. Luckily, the screenplay and the duo of Harrelson and Dern are more than up to the task of carrying the film all on their own.
As the film begins to near its conclusion it takes a rather dark, unexpected turn that is likely to turn off many viewers. It’s a turn that’s not to dissimilar to the turn taken in Art School Confidential, which I see as a fitting comparison to Wilson. As a comic writer, Clowes makes bold choices when bringing his own work to the screen, and he is more faithful to the source material than any other of Clowes’ adaptations. Within Wilson, though, there’s nothing that’s by the book as far as storytelling decisions or tonal shifts go, which I find to be quite refreshing though it certainly may put off a large number of viewers.
Wilson is a darkly comic piece of misanthropic filmmaking that pushes its characters to the absolute brink without compromising its unique heart. Much likes its eponymous character, Wilson isn’t out to please everybody and is willing to push that just a little bit further and further in unexpected directions as it goes. If you’re willing to accept a movie that plays by its own rules of likability, Wilson is definitely worth getting to know.