Shia LaBeouf: A Career Retrospective

By  · Published on January 13th, 2014

A few days ago, cinema lost a celebrated actor when Shia LaBeouf announced his retirement from public life. Ostensibly, that includes acting performances (except for the private kind), meaning that decades of unrealized work will live on only in our hearts and imaginations. Presumably, his final performance will come in David Ayer’s forthcoming war picture with Brad Pitt and no on-set shower. If it gets a release this year, it’ll be alongside a penetrating performance for Lars von Trier’s two-part Nymphomaniac, making 2014 the final year of LaBeouf’s cinematic career.

The curious element to the plagiarizing episode that has caused LaBeouf to throw his arms up in the air (and then skywrite in it) is that there’s an engine driving the absurdity. A kind of legitimacy. The mockery and derision prove that, at some level, we take LaBeouf seriously as a performer. Or at least his potential. Otherwise ‐ and with anyone we don’t think of as genuine ‐ this public stunt wouldn’t even register. At most it would be a day’s diversion, not stretching, seemingly endlessly, into the foreseeable future.

So the question is when we started taking the little kid from Even Stevens seriously.

Clearly it wasn’t with Even Stevens. At 65 episodes over 3 years, the show fell far short of the mystical 100-episode threshold that typically acts as ignition for perpetual syndication, and while stealing a lot of scenes with zaniness, LaBeouf stood as much a chance at the time of launching an earnest film career as his co-star Christy Carlson Romano. Or, really, as good a chance as any Disney star. He was a child actor, and that group’s success ratio isn’t exactly encouraging, so it wouldn’t have been surprising when yet another Disney kid fell off the face of the entertainment earth.

The next option is Holes, LaBeouf’s first starring film role, where he played Stanley Yelnats and began a tradition of having terribly awkward character names. It’s a decent dramedy and a moderate box office success, but it’s difficult to make an argument for it being the true breakout moment. On the other hand, it might be the combination of this film coming out the same year as the Project Greenlight-propelled Battle of Shaker Heights and the blockbuster road test of his side character in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle that attacked multiple audiences from different angles, offering an introduction to the actor as a family-friendly, indie-friendly, tentpole-friendly presence.

LaBeouf repeated that formula afterward with smaller roles in I, Robot and Constantine blended with a starring role in The Greatest Game Ever Played and A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints.

That last title is probably when we starting taking him seriously.

In Dito Montiel’s movie, LaBeouf plays a younger version of Montiel (the older being played by Robert Downey, Jr.) in a significant, dramatic memoir featuring gang violence and personal regrets. It was a transition ‐ an opportunity for audiences to see his range, and he’s genuinely great in it. Festivals loved it. Rightfully so.

In retrospect, it’s probably not surprising that he was able to shift his persona because of how he was able to land the role:

“For Guide, Dito [Montiel, Guide’s writer-director] didn’t want me for the movie. He thought I was this Disney kid, and he wouldn’t let me audition. So when I got an audition, I fucked his office up, I put a hole through the wall, I went as crazy as I could. Violently angry, so that I wasn’t that image he had of me.

Some things, you have to earn, because you have a stigma attached. After I did Bobby, people started offering me drug-addict roles. It’s always whatever your last film was. After Disturbia comes out, it’ll be a bunch of thrillers. It’s the ebb and flow of a film career. Some things, you have to go in and earn. Sometimes you don’t get it. There’s like five or six of us that go for the same roles all of the time. It’s very competitive.”

The year following the release of Guide, he was in Disturbia and Transformers, and the train had already left the station.

Oddly enough, the indie drama might have been the first and last time we saw the same spark. LaBeouf’s shift into blockbuster leading man territory (unless you count the Autobots as the real stars) transformed him into The No-No-No-No-No Guy without fully anchoring him as an actor’s actor. Still, five years proved to be an eternity. That’s the time it took Jonah Hill to go from asking if we’ve seen his wiener to scoring an Oscar nomination, and it’s the amount of time it took for LaBeouf to go from Disney Kid to leading action star.

Even after all that, we probably wouldn’t be feasting so considerably on the plagiarism scandal if our vision of LaBeouf’s talent solely extended to one festival favorite almost a decade ago. In working with von Trier, Robert Redford and John Hillcoat, he’s used diversity again recently to bolster his reputation in serious dramas and experimental work alike. A wacky kid from The House of Mouse going full frontal with the appearance of deepthink. At the very least, the trappings of a considerable talent.

With Howard Cantour and the stolen work from writer Daniel Clowes, LaBeouf messed up big time, then perpetuated the mistake. He compounded the problem with expensive stunts and a profound lack of straightforward apologies (and legal restitution). But all of that mess is mere curiosity that wouldn’t matter without a sticky center. In other words, if we hadn’t just seen months of promo work for Nymphomaniac, if Howard Cantour hadn’t played Cannes, if Louis Stevens hadn’t collaborated recently with Sigur Ros on a provocative short, no one would even bother to turn their head when LaBeouf announced an early retirement. Whether that means people appreciate his talent or his potential is unclear. He may simply have a magnetic quality that maintains our interest, or it may be his presence in billion-dollar franchises that has made the spread of this thing inevitably wide, but it’s undeniable that we take him seriously. Or at least that we did.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.