By John H. Foote
Special engagement at Bell Lightbox.
As a spoiled, manipulative, narcissistic grunge rock star Becky Something, actress Elisabeth Moss offers further proof she might be the finest actress of her generation. Fearlessly portraying this young woman like a raging harpy, a tornado of bad behaviour, the actress slips under her skin to give a fierce, shattering performance that often defies explanation. Watching her rampage through the first 80 electrifying minutes of the film was like watching a car wreck in slow motion, I wanted to look away, but was unable to do so. And frankly, to look away meant I might miss something Moss was doing onscreen, and nothing was making me do that.
Watching the actress in previous work like The West Wing and The Handmaid’s Tale will do nothing to prepare you for what she does here. Furiously energetic, her body and mind energized by the drugs she takes like candy, to those around her, she is hell incarnate. A once great grunge rocker who played to stadiums, she and her girl band now play small arenas and clubs, when they can get a booking. Her drug use is out of control, her boozing is legendary, and her horrific treatment of anyone, friend or foe, in close proximity has made her toxic.
And Moss courageously shows all of that.
Using her tiny daughter like a pawn with her ex-husband, she treats the child like a doll, a plaything we know she will become bored with when the drugs come calling. No one is safe from this monstrous woman, who has been treating people like dirt for so long, she does not know any other way.
The trouble is those close to her, seeking the creative and financial rewards she offers, indulge her, they let her run rampant. But now she has become a danger to herself, certainly unfit to care for a child she claims to love, and her artistry, once great, is being questioned.
Seeing Moss at the beginning of the film and seeing her portray the same character clean, gives one an indication of her extraordinary range. Is this really the same person, you might ask? Indeed it is. Relaxing at her sprawling farm house, playing music for her child, she is a completely different person, a female Jekyll and Hyde.
Director Alex Perry Ross had the courage to film Moss up close and personal, so that we feel every contortion of her face, hear every vulgarity she spews like acid at those around her, we see the spittle running down her chin, the vomit erupting from her, he gives us a microscopic look at Becky. At times it is too much, we want to say, “I get it! She is self-destructive and unspeakably selfish … got it!” Yet he maintains it for nearly an hour and a half before we see an obviously clean Becky.
Actors love this kind of role as it allows them to immerse themselves in, well, themselves which can be the kiss of death. When Nicolas Cage portrayed suicidal writer Ben in Leaving Las Vegas (1995) he did so with great likability, though had a cardinal rule, Sara could never ask him to stop drinking. If she did I suspect his reaction would have been what Moss shows us for 80 minutes on screen. She must have been exhausted making the film, I was exhausted watching her.
Incredibly she manages to bring just enough of her little broken girl quality to the film to allow us to care about her. That is a collosal achievement given what she does on her rampage at the film’s beginning. Or is it that we do not wish to see Becky atop the heap of dead self-destructive rock stars? I believe Moss has the gifts as an actress to manage to get us to care about this horror show of a human being, I believe it because I witnessed it in this film. She was extraordinary.
It is the kind of brave, far reaching performance Meryl Streep gave early in her career, from 1978-1988, the first 10 years of her film career.
Moss should prepare herself for the type of adulation Streep has received, because I believe she is about to break into that category of Acting God.
Eric Stoltz gives a fine, lived-in performance as Becky’s bone tired manager, but aside from him, no one seems able to step out of the formidable shadow of the lead actress.
For that stunning first 80 minutes, she howls like a wounded banshee, roars like a mother lion, laughs in contempt like a deadly hyena, sweats the sweat of a junkie, no doubt foul and unpleasant. It is as if her soul was exploding outward, the sweat stains on her clothes, her damp face, her hair wet and stringy with sweat. Her smell indeed, would be as foul as she has allowed her soul to become.
Moss owns this movie.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”