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.
At Alison’s behest I went back and looked again at Brad Pitt’s lone tear near the end of Ad Astra, that somber, stylish space epic that everyone, even those who didn’t love it, seemed to agree was director James Gray’s boldest reach yet. Pitt’s bone-deep performance in that film is a wonder—one of two instances this year where he made a sprawling epic feel like the intimate portrait of a troubled man, and one of two memorable times he climbed to a high place to fix an antenna. And yet I think it was around the time of that droplet’s appearance on Pitt’s lined-yet-sculpted cheek that the movie, which had held me spellbound for two hours as it swung between pulse-pounding action and cerebral quietude, started to lose me. Not because of the tear, mind you, but because the final encounter between Pitt’s emotionally repressed astronaut and his long-absent father (Tommy Lee Jones) struck me as unsatisfyingly thin in comparison with the thematic richness of what had come before. Brad traveled all the way to the outer rings of Neptune just to have a conversation that could have taken place in the rec room at Christmas?
All over the movie landscape in 2019, straight white dudes were crying: Leonardo DiCaprio’s washed-up TV actor wailing self-pityingly in his trailer in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; Adam Sandler’s jewelry dealer in Uncut Gems sobbing with bloody wads of tissue shoved up his nose; Adam Driver’s bereft theater director in Marriage Story kneeling with his arms wrapped around his ex-wife’s legs at the conclusion of their climactic spousal battle; Matthew Rhys’ walled-off journalist in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood finally succumbing to the heart-softening powers of Mr. Rogers. A few years ago, when performative misandry was all the rage on the internet—a cover for a truer, deeper female rage that expressed itself in the #MeToo movement—there was lots of talk about sipping from mugs of delicious male tears. But the ones shed by men in movies this year didn’t go down like a sweet schadenfreude-laced beverage. It hurt to watch these men fall apart, but it was a good hurt, maybe because it seemed that, in the theater and out, masculinity too was beginning to crumble.
If there’s one actor who embodied that phenomenon this year—the state of being both archetypically masculine and emo as hell—it was Adam Driver, whose ubiquity on screens had become a joke long before he returned as intergalactic thirst trap Kylo Ren. The Rise of Skywalker is the ninth and last installment of a 42-year-long cycle that, though we called it a space opera or a space western, has always really been a space soap opera. The only moment in this last chapter that genuinely moved me—beyond the unavoidable pang on seeing the face of Carrie Fisher, even digitally reproduced—involved Kylo and his father. It was simple and raw, played with the utmost unsentimentality by a completely committed Driver, and it had me leaving the theater thinking of all this odd bird of an actor has given us this year: his self-absorbed but sympathetic schlemiel in Marriage Story, his nose-to-the-grindstone wonk in The Report, and whatever Kylo Ren is—an action figure in emotional warp drive. A horny space Hamlet. A JEDILF. Driver has been so omnipresent lately that I fear he’s teetering on the abyss of a backlash, like a Star Wars character crossing one of those high bridges with no guardrails.
Bilge, 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 mean, he can sing! Sondheim! Persuasively!) That was a rhetorical question, by the way, not a writing prompt—feel free to answer with a Marriage Story meme and change the subject entirely.
The second round is on. May the force be with you—
Read the next dispatch here.