Movies

I Forgot How Great an Actor Scarlett Johansson Is Until She Devastated Me in Jojo Rabbit

The 2019 Movie Club, Entry 6.

Scarlett Johansson stands next to the Jojo actor in a town square in a still from Jojo Rabbit. Text in the corner says, "2019 Movie Club."
Scarlett Johansson in Jojo Rabbit.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Twentieth Century Fox Films.

In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, Bilge Ebiri, Karen Han, and Alison Willmore—about the year in cinema. Read the first entry here. Read the previous dispatch in the series here.

Dear Dana, Karen, and Alison,

Dana, I promise I will answer your question about other Adam Driver–like performers, but first, I must add something else about Adam Driver. Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, starring Driver and Jonathan Pryce, finally hit our shores this year, after more than 30 years of false starts, shady financiers, halfway-abandoned shoots, biblical floods, multiple dead actors, at least one ongoing lawsuit, and two strokes for its director. Another Cannes 2018 premiere, it got mixed reviews, but I loved it. (I know Karen is also a fan.) I wish its theatrical release had been a bit more substantial: Amazon was supposed to produce it at one point, but then backed out, possibly because of the fact that one of his former producers was suing Terry Gilliam for control of the project. (The producer actually sorta kinda won his lawsuit, too.) At any rate, it got one of those Fathom Events one-night-only deals, followed by a very limited run in some theaters.

I’m not going to pretend that The Man Who Killed Don Quixote would have been a huge hit, but it certainly deserved more of a chance. Driver is not only terrific in it—he’s got a gift for physical comedy and a surprising quickness that makes him an ideal Gilliam actor—but he probably deserves some credit for the fact that it finally got made, as I’m sure his star power helped. So, thank you, Adam Driver. You were also good in The Dead Don’t Die, though I can’t say I enjoyed that film all that much.

Anyway, back to the question at hand: “Is there another performer you can think of who holds such a sui generis place in the current movie landscape, at once a sex symbol, a kabillion-dollar movie star, and a serious performer who’s continuously unfolding new, complex talents?” I think the answer is staring us right in the face: Driver’s Marriage Story co-star, Scarlett Johansson, who this year was one of the few truly good things about the biggest movie of all time and starred in another Oscar-season hopeful, Jojo Rabbit. Plus, we know she can sing.

She’s a huge name, gracing covers everywhere, but we still don’t appreciate Scarlett Johansson enough. She was originally one of the most promising young actors of her time, though in recent years she’s been bogged down in Marvel movies and the occasional minor blockbuster wannabe (Lucy good, Ghost in the Shell bad). Maybe that’s why many people have stopped taking her seriously. I’m sure those occasional soundbite- and hate click–generating interviews she gives where the entire internet piles on her don’t help, either. I myself had forgotten what an incredible actor she is. When I first saw Marriage Story, it was ScarJo’s performance that really jumped out for me. Driver is tremendous at shifting between emotions, whipsawing from tenderness to befuddlement to rage to shame then back again, which is more outwardly impressive. But ScarJo is able to hold all those emotions at the same time: He performs, she feels. That contrast is by design, I think: It’s the fundamental dynamic between their characters.

As for Jojo Rabbit, it’s hard to get into her performance there without getting into spoiler territory, but I think that the movie actually turns on her performance. Despite having a finely tuned moral compass (unlike almost everyone else in Jojo Rabbit), she still has to tread carefully around her Hitler-fanboy son’s Nazism, because she knows the consequences of what might happen if it’s found out that she’s in the Resistance. I know Jojo Rabbit is much loathed among some critics (many of them friends of mine), but I found real humanity in it through her character. She’s a parent waiting for the fever to break, doing everything she can to prod it along, knowing that a misstep will tear her away from her boy forever and thus leave him to the wolves. I find all her scenes in that picture devastating.

All that said, I think my favorite performance this year is still Antonio Banderas in Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory. It’s been widely praised, of course—Banderas won Best Actor at Cannes, as well as from critics’ groups, and seems destined to be one of those rare foreign-language Best Actor Oscar nominees, which would be a not-unimpressive achievement in such a crowded year—but I still marvel at what he does here. All too often, characters have one or two defining qualities that then (hopefully) change over the course of the story. And while they may have different relationships with other characters, all their interactions still largely occur in the context of these defining traits. This is what passes for unified storytelling, which I guess is a good thing. But Banderas and Almodóvar capture something different here: The character, Salvador, seems to play a different role with each person in his life. He can be an annoying taskmaster with one person, a melancholy lover with another, or a judgmental ex-boss, or a repentant child. Banderas nails each and every one of these modes, while still retaining some essence of who Salvador is. That feels so much more honest about the way we live in the real world versus the way lives are lived on screen, one character note at a time. Pain and Glory is a movie all about how one’s life can be processed and transformed into a work of art, and I love how, in its very texture and form, it embodies that process.

This is the part where I would also discuss Banderas’ performance in Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat, but apparently I have wiped that movie clean from my memory banks, as no doubt Soderbergh himself has deleted it from his iPhone or whatever he used to shoot and edit it. Over to you, Karen!

Bilge

Read the next dispatch here.