There’s the drag, of course, but so much more—even though Perrineau is in fewer than a half-dozen scenes, his mercurial performance bends the entire film around him. His flirty offering to Romeo of an Ecstasy pill, which is ostensibly what he’s high on when he delivers his entrancingly enraged Queen Mab speech. The smirking tone of his “And then they dream of love” line, and then the shattering anger of his screamed “This is she!” His startled reaction when Romeo touches his shoulder, and his quick recovery. How clearly he steps into the role of ringleader of the Montague Boys, and then abandons that to wave and sway like a pageant winner boosted up on the backseat of the car during their drive to the Capulets’ party. The effervescent, riotous joy of that “Young Hearts Run Free” performance, and the preparation that must have gone into it: an even-more-voluminous, Diana Ross-style wig, the meticulously fastened thigh highs and garters, the choker necklace, the cape, the gloves. Luhrmann allows his actors to gaze directly into the camera every so often, and Perrineau takes full advantage of that freedom here. He shimmies, he shakes, he gyrates, he wags his fingers at anyone who considers being anything less than true to themselves. Is this, even in its artifice, Mercutio’s most authentic self? Or is it later on, when amused by Romeo—who jumps out of their car as they leave the party, running back to sneak onto Juliet’s balcony—Mercutio calls out, “Humors! Madman! Passion! Lover!”? Is the latter a guess of who Romeo was to become—or perhaps who he already was, at least to Mercutio?
So much of this reading is based on Perrineau’s vibrancy, and his next scene demonstrates his range. Gone are the sequins and the lipstick. Gone too is Mercutio’s patience. This is the renegade version of the character, and his costuming—sheer shirt, slim-fitting jeans, dreadlocks now free, gun casually on his hip—aligns him more with his Montague comrades. “Where the devil should this Romeo be?” he spits out, each syllable in “Romeo” crisp in his mouth, and it is here that Mercutio’s explosivity becomes plain. With Benvolio, he’s a roll-with-the-punches bro; the two pretend to duel on the beach. With Romeo, he’s more physical, wrestling him down into the sand before being confused, and then annoyed, by the Nurse’s presence to deliver a message from Juliet. And as a hurricane brews over the water and Tybalt and the Capulets drive up, Mercutio is ready to attack first with his words (mocking Tybalt’s sexuality, “Could you not take some occasion without giving?”) and then with his fists (when Tybalt turns the innuendo around with, “Thou consortest with Romeo?”). Does Mercutio decide to fight Tybalt because Romeo refrains out of newly found loyalty now that he’s married to Juliet, or because Romeo offers Tybalt love instead of him? Whatever the context, Perrineau’s final moments as Mercutio are the film’s strongest acting and its most compelling heartbreak. The braggadocio still lacing his laugh as he insists Tybalt’s attack was just “a scratch, a scratch,” and then the collapse of his face when the camera pans down to his gaping wound and then back up again to capture his expression, and then the bitterness in his tone when he curses Romeo and Tybalt both: “A plague on both your houses!”
Mercutio’s death finally sparks Romeo’s vitriol, and Luhrmann’s shot composition is exquisite: After cradling his best friend’s body to his chest, Romeo leaves him on the sand before the Sycamore Grove stage. As Mercutio remains in the foreground, Romeo sprints backward to his car, followed by the too-slow Benvolio. Storm clouds gather. Sand whips around. Mercutio grows colder. And in the background, an argument between Romeo and Benvolio—and then Romeo peels out to track down Tybalt. When Romeo shoots him before that gargantuan statue of Jesus, does he pierce Tybalt through the sacred heart tattoo, creating an eerie similarity between the Prince of Cats and his believed savior? Maybe. But at that point, do the details of a death really compare with its utter finality? Of everyone in “Romeo + Juliet” who dares to utter a wish, only Mercutio’s comes true—Tybalt and Romeo will both be dead in a matter of days. “A plague on both your houses,” indeed.