Paul Dano may possess, as some have joked, the most “punchable face” in Hollywood, but the demonstration of this theory isn’t so much hilarious as horrifying. For proof, take a good, hard look at the image above. That’s Dano under all those prosthetic bruises—his eyes swollen shut, his features mangled almost beyond recognition. Suddenly, the thought of Dano actually taking it on the chin becomes less funny. Laughter dries up fast, like the black blood caked around the actor’s nose.
That mangled visage is revealed about an hour into Prisoners, Denis Villeneuve’s preposterous but consistently gripping crime thriller about two little girls abducted on Thanksgiving Day in a sleepy Pennsylvania suburb. Dano plays one of the prime suspects, a mentally disabled man seen in the vicinity around the time the kids were nabbed. Released by the authorities, who have no evidence on which to hold him, he falls into the clutches of one of the hysterical parents (a volcanically angry Hugh Jackman), who chains him up in the bathroom of a boarded-up property. One look at Dano’s bashed-in face, after a few days of “enhanced interrogation methods,” is all it takes to see that Jackman’s character has pushed his crusade for justice way too far. Prisoners may muddy its ethical waters from here—it comes much closer than Zero Dark Thirty did to condoning torture—but the outrage it initially provokes is overwhelming.
More than anyone else, the makeup team is responsible for that righteous horror. They’ve created an image so sickeningly powerful it seems to carve out its own moral agenda: This, the grisly countenance declares, is what it looks like to justify means with ends. For that achievement alone, Prisoners deserves to be among the three nominees competing for Best Makeup And Hairstyling on Oscar night. That said, it’s something of a cheat to stump for the movie this late in the game. After all, the Academy has already revealed its seven-film shortlist, from which it will select the lucky three—and Prisoners isn’t on it. Instead, AMPAS has singled out American Hustle, Dallas Buyers Club, The Great Gatsby, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, and The Lone Ranger as its prospective contenders. These motley selections reveal what Oscar voters really look for in movie makeup: if not glamour, than the illusion of physical transformation.
Since the award’s inception in 1981, when the Academy gave the prize to Rick Baker for turning David Naughton into a creature of the night, the Makeup branch has conveyed a bias toward elaborate prosthetic work. Most years, best makeup seems to translate to most makeup, with the award going to the films that burden their actors with the greatest amount of facial or bodily adornments. Often, the key to a win is simply making a movie star look less beautiful—say, by slathering Elizabeth Banks in kabuki-style face paint or turning Christian Bale into a balding slob. (Though in the case of the latter, the beer belly is supposedly all natural.) AMPAS goes especially wild for movies that dramatically age their actors, which is why the latest Jackass film may join Adam Sandler’s Click on the list of all-time unlikely Oscar nominees. Transformation, again, is what wows voters in this category.
The thing is, Dano’s gruesome makeover is a transformation, and not a minimalist one either. The actor claims to have sat for three to four hours a day while a makeup artist—possibly department head Donald Mowat—turned his face into a bloody pulp. But Dano only appears in this ghastly state for a matter of minutes, maybe seconds, which is nothing compared to the screen time Famke Janssen claims as one of the titular targets of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. Anyway, the Oscars rarely recognize the art of making someone look credibly, realistically brutalized. 1999 is the only year the Makeup category has included more than three nominees, but the fourth wasn’t Fight Club—a movie in which bruises and battle scars were actual plot points.
Someone could probably make the case that the year’s best makeup was the least detectable, the kind that no one noticed. As in editing, invisibility is a secret virtue of the craft; no one is going to give the makeup team of 12 Years A Slave an award, because making sure we don’t notice their work is a crucial part of the job. (Maybe the slate could expand to a full five nominees if the Academy actually considered more subtle, traditional achievements.) But among the year’s showiest, most-complicated makeup effects, Dano’s mutilated mug is uniquely affecting—the kind of craftsmanship that actually shapes a viewer’s emotional response to the material. If that’s not enough, Prisoners also convincingly transforms a middle-aged woman, Melissa Leo, into an elderly one. They gave you old-age makeup, AMPAS. What more do you want?