Shia LaBeouf makes art out of rage, which is somewhat fitting for an actor whose art has inspired irrational hatred. It’s baffling that fanboys and internet shouters once surveyed the wretched suck-scape that was the fourth Indiana Jones movie and then saw fit to blame it all on LaBeouf. This uncommonly emotive actor — so adept at suggesting, through the clench of his jaw and the wateriness of his eyes, the vagaries of frustrated masculinity — certainly wasn’t the one who suggested “Let’s dress this character up like young Brando and then try to steal Indy’s hat.” Nah, the dude showed up, squinted and smoldered on command, and tried to make the material into something, which is more than the director and producer really bothered with. LaBeouf didn’t write that crap.
That movie and its response, at least, gave LaBeouf something to be mad about. Now, a couple of years into his exile from a Hollywood that kept tasking him with anchoring charmless blockbusters, LaBeouf at last has a showcase suited to his talent for parsing and processing anger. Playing John McEnroe in Janus Metz’s Borg vs. McEnroe, LaBeouf fully exhibits a wounded, soulful rage that, in retrospect, can be seen simmering beneath the surface of many of his earlier performances. There’s an element of parroting, here, as he spews out McEnroe’s staccato curses and complaints, but it’s never mere mimicry. Each sputtered fuck seems to explode right from the gut, even as each also is precise and weighted in its meaning and impact. LaBeouf demonstrates both a rare command of the psychology of male fury and a canny sense of the complexities of American swearing. Sometimes, screaming about a line call, his McEnroe sounds viciously, hilariously rueful, a man certain that it’s everyone else on this planet who’s lost it — it couldn’t be him.
That’s what most angry men believe, of course. So LaBeouf’s intelligent sounding of the depths and sources of rage is vital. The movies should taxonomize and condemn male aggression more often than they lionize it. (LaBeouf also did excellent work in the little-seen 2016 PTSD thriller Man Down.) By the end of Borg vs. McEnroe, we hear LaBeouf’s hotheaded tennis star being toasted by Wimbledon announcers for having kept his cool — for having fueled his anger into glory on the court and given a skeptical world reason to cheer him.
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The film — which is nowhere near as interesting as LaBeouf’s performance — is hopelessly reductive about its subjects’ psychology even as it mocks the press of 1980 for being reductive about its subjects’ psychology. I’ve spent so long on LaBeouf because the movie has little to say, really, about Borg, McEnroe or tennis. Sverrir Gudnason’s Björn Borg, the Swede looking to win his record-breaking fifth Wimbledon championship, was touted as the passionless gentleman of tennis; young McEnroe was its filthy-mouthed rebel. Rather than complicate those caricatures, the moody Borg vs. McEnroe freights them with backstory. Turns out that implacable Borg seethes with rage and anxiety but was told years before by his coach (Stellan Skarsgard) never to show emotion on the court. And McEnroe, you see, was forever trying to please a father who always demanded more.
The film, like the sports press at the time, finds the champ and the upstart on a collision course at Wimbledon. The stakes are just that: Will the old pro win yet again or will the young buck score the first of what will likely be many championships to come? To keep us invested, the filmmakers tie the final match directly to both men’s deepest conception of self, to their efforts to break away from pasts that hurt. The filmmakers aren’t especially attentive to the specifics of either man’s game, so the big match seems to turn not on athleticism or grit but on which player will be most motivated by his pained flashbacks. One fresh element: For our damaged, driven heroes, victory looks only slightly less miserable than losing.
McEnroe is billed second in the title for a reason. He is to Borg vs. McEnroe what LaBeouf’s Mutt was apparently meant to be to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: the raw striver who may get to be the hero next time, once the old-timer is out of the way. Borg gets more scenes, and Gudnason is captivatingly sullen in a thinly written part. Already facing emotional and physical exhaustion in his mid-twenties, and determined never to be less than the best, Borg is contemplating a possible future outside of tennis — and lashing out at those closest to him. Too bad that this mostly is communicated through scenes of the champ being prickish to his coach and to his fiancée (Tuva Novotny), plus shots of Gudnason brooding with rakish glamour.
The production design throughout is strong, evocative of the era’s hotels and locker rooms and zeal for racing stripes, but the film never gets bogged down in the minutiae of fashion. It also, unfortunately, never gets caught up in tennis itself. The signature match, I fear, communicates the thrill of editing rather than that of athletic competition, and it relies overbearingly on those sports announcers exclaiming, in flinty British C-3P0 voices, that it’s against the odds that this could happen. (Yes, they explain, with comic patience, how tiebreaks work.) Throughout the many games and sets of this most thrilling of matches, the filmmakers never once bother to show us, without cutting, a full volleyed point. The flow of the match gets butchered. If it weren’t for LaBeouf’s raw and antsy embodiment of McEnroe, I’d suggest just watching the real thing on YouTube.