Not that long ago, while waiting to cross at a busy intersection in downtown Toronto, I found myself standing next to actor Elijah Wood.
At the time, I had no idea who he was. I recognized him, but I didn’t have a clue from where. Had I met him at a party? Did I play poker with him one night? Did he briefly date somebody I knew? There was no doubt he looked like somebody, I just didn’t know whom, and so I stared at him, trying to figure it out.
Maybe that’s what star power is, a physical charisma that compels you to pay attention. I mean, I honestly just thought he was a short guy who looked like somebody I once might have met, but still, I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. He had a thoughtful, slightly angry cast to his face and he wore the sneakers of a downtown hipster. Wearing expensive jeans with fancy embroidery on the back pockets, he artfully smoked a cigarette, hunching his shoulders as if a Film Noir detective protecting himself from the wind off the harbor. It wasn’t until later when I got home, that I realized that this person was Elijah Wood.
Of course, the first thing that most people think of when considering Elijah Wood is the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He was Frodo, the modest, unexpected hero we could all relate to maybe a little more than we wanted. Personally, I hoped to see myself in the handsome and virile Aragorn Strider, but there was just no escaping that I was more Hobbit than Warrior King.
Wood, with huge, startled eyes of an innocent, had an ethereal, alien quality to him. He seemed different, like a toy or some sort of changeling. Fragile on the exterior, as if too sensitive for this world, he typically managed to prove to have an interior forged of sterner stuff. Neither a boy nor a man, he somehow contained the best of both, and pure of heart, he would conquer whatever foreboding landscape lay ahead.
However, the actors in The Lord of the Rings took an understandable second billing. The success of the franchise was propelled by the story, which is deeply embedded in our culture, and the special effects that fleshed it out. So for me, they’re not the movies in which Wood made the greatest impression.
Elijah Wood has been in some first rate movies, including The Ice Storm and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but as embarrassing as it is to admit, I really liked Deep Impact.
This 1998 End-of-the-World picture features a human race that’s about to be obliterated by a massive meteor. It’s a big movie, replete with apocalyptic special effects and a massive cast full of respected actors that can’t quite carry a picture on their own. (Morgan Freeman! Robert Duvall! Tea Leoni! Jon Favreau! James Cromwell! Elijah Wood! Leelee Sobieski!) At first flush it sounds like one of those 1970s disaster epics, like The Towering Inferno or The Poseidon Adventure, a movie so floridly ambitious and commercial that it could have easily fallen on its kitschy face. But it didn’t.
I think a great deal of the credit for this small miracle should go to the director, Mimi Leder. In spite of having all sorts of different plots heading off in crazy directions, she was able to establish an authentic emotional subtext to the looming catastrophe that you usually don’t see in big budget action films. Leder was able to shrink the destruction of the planet to a digestible, individual level. It’s humiliating sentimental of me, but I always find watching Deep Impact to be a surprisingly touching experience. Instead of seeing Nick Cage charging about in all his quirky glory, we watch small, intimate moments of love and sorrow.
After seeing that Kathryn Bigelow directed The Hurt Locker, I’m starting to think that women should always direct action movies, as they seem to understand that it’s people that drive the action, and not merely the exploding machinery that serves these people.
At any rate, Elijah Wood’s role is relatively small, but for me he’s in perhaps the most memorable scene in the movie. As a tsunami is about to wash over the world, Wood — mobile and courageous on a zippy dirt bike — dekes in and out of the doomed motorists jammed on the highway. With Leelee Sobieski and a baby in tow, he heads for higher ground. And the rest of us, those left behind, look on with quivering lips, watching hopefully as the future of the race moves forward, even as we’re left behind.
A few years later in 2005, Elijah Wood, now in his mid 20s, starred in the film adaptation of the Jonathan Safran Foer novel, Everything Is Illuminated. As directed by Liev Schreiber, this uneven movie had a lyrical, impressionistic beauty, one that simultaneously suggested the amplifying and clarifying powers contained in the imagination.
Elijah Wood, wearing a fusty, black suit and nerd glasses, moved wide-eyed and tentative through the film. There was a little bit of the “sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it…” corn of American Beauty to the portrayal, but it was interesting, too. With his weirdly vivid eyes, that seemed to be devouring the human world for the first time, Wood was mannered and disconnected. You could see something creepy lurking beneath the surface, and it was clear that Wood could be a serial killer just as easily as the sensitive, hothouse flower he was portraying.
In Sin City, which came out the same year, this freak-factor was realized. The movie itself was a world of terrific — sexy, surprising, and luridly violent, it was a visual masterpiece that was engrossing from start to finish. Wood played Kevin, a mute serial killer with evil eyes. It was perfect casting, I think, transforming what had been angelic to the demonic.
There’s a separateness in Elijah Wood, and the older he gets, the more perverse it becomes. He could become this generation’s Anthony Perkins, and the eyes that as a boy seemed all consuming and innocent, almost holy, might eventually be remembered for projecting a pitiless and uncomprehending evil.
Michael Murray is a freelance writer. For the last three and a half years he’s written a weekly column for the Ottawa Citizen about watching television. He presently lives in Toronto. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.