Ed Warren sits in a musty living room in north London, trying to make contact with a demon. Behind him sits a little girl who is said to be possessed. The demon won’t speak, she insists, unless he looks away and gives her some privacy. With his back to the girl, Ed goes to work. “Now go out and talk to us,” he said happily.
The demon comes out, cackling and taunting in an evil, guttural voice, like a Tom Waits cockney. He wants to shake Ed, but as played by Patrick Wilson, Ed is not easily shaken. Alongside his wife Lorraine, he works as a paranormal investigator, and this is hardly his first one-on-one with an evil spirit. “Your father called you Edward,” the demon growls, trying to get under his skin. But Ed just rolls his eyes and shakes his head impatiently. “You are not a psychiatrist and I am not here to talk about my father,” he said. “We’re going to get down to business. What are you saying?”
This scene in “The Conjuring 2” (2016), the sequel to the lavish and terrifying “The Conjuring”, sums up what these blockbuster films do so well. Director James Wan films the entire conversation in one long, uninterrupted shot, zooming in so slowly that camera movement is virtually undetectable. The demon in the background is a sinister blur. Instead, our attention is fixed on Ed, looking ahead.
Wan is demanding a lot from his lead here – the effect of the scene is entirely up to Wilson, and without a cut, in a very close-up, he has nowhere to hide. But he turns out to be more than capable. The five-minute scene is an actor’s tour de force, which you might not expect in the middle of a haunted house photo.
The range of emotions on Ed’s face is fascinating. Wilson, a classically trained actor with a background in stage dramas and Broadway musicals, is able to do so much with subtle changes in the cast of his eyes and his mannerisms that you can tell from moment to moment. instant exactly how he feels – worried, irritated, confused, grief-stricken. For a fraction of a second, his composure falters. Then he stiffens, blinks and walks back to him. It’s a frightening showdown, that’s for sure. But it is especially convincing for the intensity that Wilson exudes.
Of course, Wilson, who once again stars as Ed in the new sequel, “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It”, has been a known talent for over 20 years. In the early 2000s, he was nominated for a Tony Award for his lead roles in the musicals “The Full Monty” and “Oklahoma!” And in 2003 he was nominated for an Emmy and a Golden Globe for “Angels in America,” the television adaptation of Tony Kushner’s play in which he plays a gay Mormon lawyer struggling with his sexuality during the crisis. AIDS.
“Angels in America” is a more straightforward acting showcase, and Wilson’s performance, full of stifled passion and moral compromise, is sensitive and powerful. He shares scenes with Al Pacino and Meryl Streep, but this is the most emotional turn.
Like many famous stage actors before him, Wilson quickly tried to transform his growing prestige into film stardom. The results have been mixed. Over the next several years he appeared in a number of prominent Hollywood films, but many of them were poorly received, such as the limp remake “The Alamo”, the over-the-top domestic thriller “Lakeview Terrace” and the large-screen version of “The A-Team”. When he played the role of reluctant superhero Nite Owl II in Zack Snyder’s ambitious adaptation of the graphic novel “Watchmen”, critics complained that he had been misinterpreted.
It was in 2010 that Wilson found an unexpected niche: horror film. That year, he starred in “Insidious,” a first-time experience of the low-budget horror revolution from producer Jason Blum and a spooky, atmospheric ghost story with a playful twist by David Lynch.
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Wilson played Josh Lambert, who for the first two acts looks like the typical patriarch of horror films: loyal, stable, and, as the haunting begins to heat up, firmly disbelieving. He spends a lot of time reassuring his wife that she has to imagine the scary things she sees in the house and that the ghosts are not real. Until it turns out that the ghosts are real and that in fact Josh has a thing with them.
At the end of the second act, it is revealed that Josh had an encounter with a demon as a child, but his memories were suppressed. And Wilson, by accepting this information, manages to subtly unveil a life of trauma. With a slight displacement of the eyes and a delicate tension of the muscles, he transmits flashes of lingering deep terror to the back of his subconscious. Suddenly, a familiar and somewhat flat character takes on a new dimension, as Wilson transforms a stock type into someone dynamic and real.
Wilson reprizes the role in “Insidious: Chapter 2”, with Josh’s body inhabited by a malevolent demon and Josh’s soul trapped in the Spirit World. As the demon Josh, Wilson has the difficult task of playing an evil spirit masquerading as a human, convincing those closest to him that he is the same old Josh as he secretly conspires to kill them. Every now and then, the happy husband’s mask slips off and Wilson reveals a glimpse of a frenzied threat. It’s a terrifying performance reminiscent of Jack Nicholson in “The Shining”.
Ed Warren is the opposite of Josh Lambert. Ed’s role in the films “The Conjuring” is a stabilizing presence.
He and Lorraine (played by the wonderful Vera Farmiga) are called upon to investigate events that seem to defy scientific explanation, and their arrival at the scene, usually after ghosts and demons have made a preliminary haunting, is accompanied by of a sense of self-confidence that is rare in horror films. Wilson gives the calming impression of unruffled expertise, an almost fatherly stillness, much like what Tom Hanks brings to many roles. As scared as we may be, we take comfort in Ed knowing what he is doing.
Ed is a man of God, investigating demonic possession on behalf of the church, and one of the most striking things about Wilson’s performance is the intensity of his religious conviction. When he throws a cross on a spirit to dispel its power or reads the Latin scriptures to save the day, he does not appear to simply hold props or quote dialogue, but view these objects and rituals with palpable awe. It makes you feel Ed’s faith, as well as his belief in evil and the supernatural. It makes scary things more frightening and more real.
Wilson and Farmiga’s screen chemistry has been widely praised, but it’s hard to overstate how powerful they are together. Their warmth and tenderness is a crucial respite from the pulsating horror around them, and the affection they show for each other is appealing precisely because it contrasts so strongly with the rest of the action. They are so magnetic that their small roles at the start of the “Conjuring” spin-off “Annabelle Comes Home” practically spoil the rest of the film: after having had the pleasure of watching them at the beginning, we are disappointed to see them go.
Shortly after Ed’s confrontation with the demon in “The Conjuring 2”, he notices an acoustic guitar in the corner of the same room. The family of the possessed little girl hands it to him, and he starts imitating Elvis Presley and sings “Can’t Help Falling in Love” in its entirety. The scene does not advance the plot. It is not a management error; it doesn’t end with a twist, revelation, or fear of jumping. The openness and gentle humor that Wilson embodies is worth a dozen jaw-dropping scares: indeed, that frankness and humor is what makes scares worth something in the first place. “The Conjuring 2” is already 136 minutes long – a more careful editor might have advised to cut the unnecessary scene. But this moment, so serious in its feeling, is the heart of the film. Like Wilson’s performance, it’s perfect.