Paul Dano’s Best Performances, Ranked

It’s been quite the year for Mr. Paul Dano. In March, he starred as the new Batman villain on the block, Riddler, in Matt Reeve‘s The Batman opposite Robert Pattinson. Dano played the Riddler to terrifying effect, becoming the ultimate villain for the internet age. I don’t think any of us will soon forget the film’s opening scene – Dano not needing a word to convey how horrifyingly evil Edward Nashton is. Now, Dano is starring as a cinematic version of Steven Spielberg‘s father in The Fabelmans, which releases nationwide today. 2022 has not been too shabby for the actor we all came to know wearing a « Jesus Was Wrong » t-shirt.

Over the past two decades, Dano has worked with some of the most exciting directors in the industry, playing roles from famed musicians to mute teenagers. He’s been a stable and dependable force on screen, never feeling the need to approach a role with a « look at me » attention-grabbing ego. His reserved, thoughtful exterior and cool, serene voice are his trademarks, which can be used to comfort, shock, and sometimes even hypnotize his audience. He’s this writer’s absolute favorite actor, so it brings me a lot of joy to revel in his talent as I give you his 10 best performances, ranked.

RELATED: Steven Spielberg Got Emotional Casting Paul Dano as His Dad in ‘The Fabelmans’


10. Youth (2015)

Image Via StudioCanal

Acting opposite two of the biggest titans in the industry – Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel – it’s easy to become sidelined. But Dano employs his reserved and somewhat mysterious demeanor to offer an understated but complex performance in Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth. Dano plays a famous actor who hides in a Swiss Alps resort to dive deep into his new character – the reveal of which serves as one of the film’s funniest moments. Surrounded by self-indulgent manic people trying to reclaim the glory of their youth, Dano’s Jimmy Tree is trying to make sense of his future. A particular scene that allows Dano to shine is when a young girl comes up to him to compliment his acting. A man lost in his career finally finds validation not in an important critic, but in a child who was affected by his work. It’s an honest portrait of the artist as a lost man and another example of how Dano can excel in a more limited role.

9. Okja (2017)

Image Via Netflix

Before Parasite, there was Okja, Bong Joon-ho’s exploration into the meat industry starring Ahn Seo-hyun, Tilda Swinton, and Jake Gyllenhaal (a frequent collaborator of Dano’s). Dano co-stars as Jay, the leader of the ALF (Animal Liberation Front) who wants to help Mija (Ahn) and her beloved “super pig” Okja, who is at risk of being captured and killed. Dano’s role serves as a source of calm and guidance for Mija, being one of the few people who want to help her. After a chaotic and action-packed chase, Dano delivers his monologue in his calming voice about the importance of animal rights. Now, his character may be hypocritical when it comes to the care of humans, but Dano’s Jay provides the film with some much-needed goodness to go along with Mija’s heroism. Like John Hurt‘s Priest in Jackie, his character’s purpose is to intercut the intense scenes of action with a moment of peace to allow the audience a breather. And boy, does he serve his purpose well.

8. War & Peace (2016)

Image Via BBC

2016’s BBC adaptation of the famed novel puts Dano front and center as Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a count who is still trying to find his place in the world. Navigating life in the 1800s Russian Empire, Pierre seems to find it difficult to find any true source of happiness. From his loveless marriage to the unfaithful and cold Helene (Tuppence Middleton) to Pierre’s hopeful view of the world and desire to make it good gradually being worn down. Dano follows Pierre’s changing viewpoint, from hope to destitute back to hope, with skillful precision. Dano’s warm and sweet presence against the cold setting is a much-needed reminder of what the original novel is about – the pursuit of meaning in life. It makes his final happy ending with Natasha (Lily James) all the more satisfactory, as from day one we are rooting for Pierre to find true happiness – and Dano doesn’t ever let that slip.

7. Prisoners (2013)

Paul Dano in Prisoners
Image Via Warner Bros. Pictures

One of Dano’s most unconventional performances comes in Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners. Dano plays the film’s main suspect, Alex, a young man with a learning difficulty who is entangled in a case of two missing girls. Although Alex is not under arrest and is released from police custody, the parents of the girls, particularly Hugh Jackman’s Keller, subject Alex to intense torture to extract information from him. Dano has little to no dialogue, but he doesn’t need it. He perfectly strikes that balance between creepy suspicion and fearful innocence. Which one is he? Dano doesn’t let his guard down throughout the entire film, and that is not an easy position to be in, to hold the mystery of a film in the palm of your hand, reminiscent of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s work in Doubt.

6. Ruby Sparks (2012)

Image Via Fox Searchlight

A lesser-known film that sees Dano step into the leading man position is Ruby Sparks. The film was directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (a Little Miss Sunshine reunion) and written and co-starred by Dano’s real-life partner, Zoe Kazan. The film follows Calvin Weir-Fields (Dano), who, at the age of 18, had a Sally Rooney-esque sudden rise to fame with his first novel. The film centers around Calvin ten years later suffering from a decade-long bout of writer’s block and living in the LA hills. He begins to write about Ruby Sparks, the girl of his dreams, running to his typewriter every morning to be with her, much like a teenage girl writing fan fiction about her favorite popstar, it’s half literature, half living out a fantasy for Calvin.

Then one morning, he wakes up to find her alive and well in his house. There’s no Disney magic wave of a wand here, the film doesn’t bother to explain how Ruby has manifested into real life. The film focuses on the male idea of the “dream girl” and how control and possession can be the ultimate downfalls of any seemingly healthy relationship. Dano and Kazan’s real-life chemistry translates perfectly to the screen with a truly hard-to-watch scene towards the end when the two characters come to a standstill and Calvin finally has to separate the lines of fiction and reality. It’s a love story, it’s a cautionary tale and sometimes it feels like a horror film, but it all ties together to offer a fresh and raw take on modern relationships and women as viewed through the male gaze. Dano plays the antihero who superficially seems sweet and harmless, but underneath it all is a man desperate to get what he wants. He might seem like the most awful person (and sometimes he is), but Dano offers the character a jarring amount of vulnerability and honesty that in the end, Calvin can attain some amount of redemption.

5. The Fabelmans (2022)

Image via Universal

It’s one thing to play a real person—which Dano has done in films like Being Flynn and Love & Mercy—but it’s a whole new ballgame when you’re playing the father of the man who is directing you. That’s the unenviable task Dano had in The Fabelmans, where he plays Burt Fabelman, a thinly-veiled version of Steven Spielberg’s own father, Arnold Spielberg. Burt is a cautious figure in Spielberg’s look back at his own childhood, as he worries about his son Sammy (Gabrielle LaBelle) about indulging in his passion for film, while not noticing that his own marriage is slowly but surely falling apart, as he moves his family around the country. Since Burt is a computer engineer, Dano plays the character with a very binary look at the world, one that comes at odds with his ambitious son and his free-spirited wife Mitzi (Michelle Williams). Dano is giving a quiet, yet incredibly heartbreaking performance in The Fabelmans, a role that is one of his best yet. – Ross Bonaime

4. The Batman (2022)

Paul Dano as The Riddler in The Batman

« What’s black and blue and dead all over? You. » These were some of the first words we heard echoed by Paul Dano’s Riddler in the second trailer for The Batman. Dano’s face isn’t shown in the trailer but that isn’t important. Even just the eery whisper of how he drags out the « you » is utterly terrifying. Cut to the actual film, and Dano brings a villain to the Batman universe like nothing we’ve seen before. He’s quiet and discreet, remaining a mystery for the majority of the film, staying true to his namesake. As aforementioned, the opening scene of the movie sees Riddler stand quietly in the dark, waiting for the perfect moment to prey on his latest victim – and it’s chilling to the bone, without any dialogue. This contrasts greatly with the way we view Riddler by the end of the film. He’s your average internet incel – weak, pathetic, but still horrifying in how he managed to cause such destruction. Dano was perfectly cast – as he had proven in many roles prior that he doesn’t need a character with a big ego, flashy dialogue, or outlandish demeanor. But in the scenes that require a more maniacal energy from him, he brings it. Despite not showing his face until the final act of the movie, Dano makes Riddler his own, and the movie is all the better for it.

3. There Will Be Blood (2007)

Paul Dano as Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood
Image Via Paramount Vantage

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone that doesn’t think of Paul Thomas Anderson‘s There Will Be Blood as anything short of a masterpiece. The steady climb of almost excruciating tension, the Jonny Greenwood score, Daniel Day-Lewis doing his thing, or that final scene. It’s pure cinema at its absolute best, and even though it’s led by one of the finest living actors, that doesn’t stop Paul Dano from exhibiting his immense talent. Dano plays the dual role of twins, Eli and Paul Sunday. We don’t get a lot of time with Paul, but Eli is front and center as a wannabe preacher who has a lot to say about sins and morality and is steadfastly against Daniel’s (Day-Lewis) oil drilling on his family’s land. It’s a demanding role for Dano, especially in the preaching scenes as he plays Eli with such unhinged energy and eccentricity without ever making it feel ridiculous or unbelievable. Whether Eli is angry, inspired, humiliated, or, in the last ten minutes, absolutely petrified, Dano doesn’t skip a beat. He rises to the level set by his legendary co-star and proves himself just as worthy. A lot of people would consider this his best performance, but wherever you rank it, this will always be a performance known for an actor going well beyond his years.

2. Little Miss Sunshine

Image Via Fox Searchlight

Dano shot to prominence with his portrayal of mute teenager Dwayne Hoover in Faris and Dayton’s Little Miss Sunshine. Dwayne has decided to completely stop talking until he reaches his dream of going to pilot school. But Dano’s facial acting makes sure that no emotion, thought or aggravation goes unseen (he also uses a notepad). A central scene of the film is when Dwayne learns that he is colorblind, resulting in a full-blown mental breakdown where he finally breaks his silence to bash his family’s problems, declaring his hatred for them. But, like all teenagers, they just need to cool it and maybe some gesture of comfort (his little sister Olive softly leans her head on his shoulder in one of cinema’s sweetest shots) and he’s up and ready to go.

It’s hard to get an authentic portrayal of the frustration of adolescence, but this performance is one to remember, particularly for one of Dwayne’s lines – “You do what you love and fuck the rest.” There’s no entitled, spoilt brat here, just a lost young man who at the end of the day, what’s to do what he loves and protect his family – particularly his younger sister. Dano somehow makes the sullen teenager one of the most tender characters in independent cinema. We can all see a bit of ourselves in Dwayne and that’s because Dano ensures that whilst being such a closed-off character, he offers some universality.

1. Love & Mercy

Image Via Lionsgate

Dano earned his first Golden Globe nomination and shared the leading role in Love & Mercy, starring as a younger Brian Wilson recording Pet Sounds, with John Cusack playing Wilson years later. In Dano’s Wilson, we see the start of his mental downfall, with the rising success of The Beach Boys, and fatherhood and marriage not being able to mask the paranoia and manic depression the musician is suffering from. It’s a painfully tragic performance, seeing a genius lose himself in his own talent, unable to guide his way out by his own mental suffering. Offering two Wilsons in two different timelines only adds to the depth of the musician’s journey, and the bouncing back and forth both reinstates how Wilson was doomed to a life of exploitation but offers some space for the hope that he can one day lead a life on his own terms.

Dano and Cusack, although obviously never in a scene together, form an acting partnership, both dedicating themselves to their character – the same man, but two different parts to play. Although we know by now that Dano can shine without dialogue, it’s fun to see him marvel in not just a ton of it, but also singing! It will without a doubt be a performance the actor will be remembered for, disappearing into one of the world’s most famous and tortured musicians without a trace and never making it feel exploitative of mental illness. It’s undoubtedly Dano’s most demanding performance to date, and whatever the role asks of him, he brings it.

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