2017 character actors

While 2017 has, overall, been a tire fire of a year, it has also been a largely rewarding year for cinema. (It should go without saying, but every year is rewarding for cinema.) Though there have been thematic throughlines in unexpectedly similar films, and unavoidable, sometimes unintentional parallels to real-world events, 2017 in film has been the year of the ubiquitous character actor.

In a strange coincidence (or just a sign of taste from various filmmakers), a handful of character actors have not only appeared in a number of the year’s most notable films, but they’ve each appeared in movies that may well end up with Oscar nominations aplenty next month. Let’s look at four character actors who seemingly showed up in every movie released in 2017: Caleb Landry Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tracy Letts, and Bradley Whitford.

This post contains spoilers for Get Out, The Florida Project, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, Lady Bird, The Post, Call Me By Your Name, and The Shape of Water.

Character Actors caleb landry jones

Caleb Landry Jones

In just a few short years, Caleb Landry Jones has established himself as one of the squirreliest, most intense, and most unpredictable young actors of his generation. A decade ago, he made a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it debut in the Coens’ masterpiece No Country for Old Men as one of the boys who help Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh after a car accident. Since then, Jones has had roles on two of the best modern TV dramas (Friday Night Lights and Breaking Bad), played a young mutant in X-Men: First Class, and co-starred in indie films directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Brandon Cronenberg, and others. But 2017 was his banner year: he has supporting roles in three possible Best Picture contenders, Get Out, The Florida Project, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Plus, he even wound up in a handful of episodes of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks revival this summer.

Jones, perhaps more than the other actors on this list, might have had the most remarkable year because of how wildly different he seems in each part. In his earlier roles, Jones established himself as a slippery, sometimes repellent presence, which figures heavily into how he appears in Jordan Peele’s masterful Get Out. Jeremy Armitage is the last, most visibly aggro member of the well-to-do Northeastern family that the film’s reserved Black protagonist, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), encounters. Jeremy dresses in an upscale-prep style, but his long hair and intense gaze gives him away as more than just an obnoxious, fratty dudebro.

In Jones’ first big scene, as Chris has dinner with the family of his White girlfriend (Alison Williams), he dives into the oily character with aplomb, pushing Chris to talk about how athletic he might be, and gauging whether or not he’s into MMA. Over the next hour, Chris realizes that his girlfriend’s family is genuinely monstrous, luring Black people to their estate to go through a medical procedure that allows white people to inhabit their bodies while they are cast adrift in “the sunken place.” Before Chris can escape, though, he has to face off with Jeremy in a bloody fight to the death, paying off those earlier queries about MMA.

Jones’ other parts this year are diametrically opposed to his nefarious work in the superlative horror satire. His briefest appearance is in the year’s best film, The Florida Project, showing up in a couple of scenes to play Jack, the son of motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe in a career-best performance). Once you see the two men next to each other, Bobby recruiting his son to help with some menial tasks around the Central Florida motel, it becomes so obvious that you can’t believe you didn’t see the resemblance before. Of course Jones would play Dafoe’s son; it’s not just that both men are versatile performers, but the physical similarities extend to their finely defined cheekbones and intense eyes. Jack doesn’t stay around too long, as his dialogue obliquely suggests that Bobby and Jack’s mother still have a contentious relationship although they’re no longer together. Bobby doesn’t resolve anything with Jack by the end of the film; you get the sense that he gains more from his surrogate-father status with the young children who stay at his motel than from his own son. Yet Jones manages to stick out in a good way, his absence punctuating the final, heartbreaking half of the film even more.

Jones is in a bit more of Martin McDonagh’s black-comic thriller Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, as Red, the local operator of the billboards that Frances McDormand’s Mildred Hayes uses to send a sharp message to the police force that has failed to solve the brutal rape and murder of her daughter. Outside of an early scene, and the suggestion that Red sympathizes enough with Mildred’s plight to not argue about the stridency of her profane messages, Red mostly gets two key scenes in the latter half. In the first, he’s literally tossed out of a building by Dixon, a racist cop (Sam Rockwell); in the second, after Dixon has been burned in an explosion, Red finds himself sharing a hospital room with his attacker. Rockwell has been rightly praised for his work in Three Billboards (I might quibble with the writing, but Rockwell sells the complexity of the cop’s journey from start to finish), but in this scene, Jones is incredible. Red is forced, if only by the demands of polite society, to stop himself from retaliating against Dixon. His tearful willingness to offer Dixon a cup of orange juice with a straw to sip from through his bandages is a moving grace note, and a nice cap to Jones’ phenomenal year.

Character Actors tracy letts

Tracy Letts

Some cinephiles (as well as those who love the stage) might know Tracy Letts more from his work as a writer. He’s the author of such plays-turned-into-films as Bug, Killer Joe, and August: Osage County, the latter of which garnered him the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. This year, he stepped in front of the camera a bit more in two notable films, each of which may end up with Best Picture nominations: Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age dramedy Lady Bird and Steven Spielberg’s The Post. (Fair warning: you’re going to see The Post mentioned often here.) In Lady Bird, Letts plays Larry, the kindly, clinically depressed father of Lady Bird, AKA Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan). So far, Lady Bird has been getting tons of justified praise for its cast, primarily Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, who plays Lady Bird’s tough-willed, loving mother. Having said that, Letts acquits himself admirably in a role that’s tough on its own, primarily for being more subtle and backgrounded.

Early in the film, Larry loses his job and struggles throughout the rest of the story (taking place over Lady Bird’s senior year of high school) to regain employment. Letts has a number of solid moments on which to build his empathetic performance, such as when Larry secretly agrees to help Lady Bird apply to colleges far beyond the local radius her mother wants her to focus upon for financial reasons. But Letts’ best moment, and his quietest, is when Larry exits a job interview that is clearly not going to win him a new position, and sees that his barely-out-of-high-school-aged son Miguel is next in line to apply for the job. Letts allows a number of emotions to fleetingly appear as Larry looks at his son, taking him in as a grown-up and then helping him adjust his tie before wishing him luck. It’s a profoundly complex action, in which Larry tries his best to maintain his dignity, refusing to get petty in a stressful moment.

Considering that he’s one among countless performers in The Post, Letts doesn’t have as many moments in which to shine through. (Hell, The Post puts Bob Odenkirk and David Cross on screen together a handful of times, which can only mean that Steven Spielberg is a huge Mr. Show fan. I brook no argument here.) He plays Fritz Beebe, the chief corporate officer of The Washington Post, and is primarily presented in The Post as one of the few allies of the paper’s publisher, Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep). Unlike every other man that Graham encounters at the head of the Post, Fritz is more willing to be a confidant to Graham as opposed to doubting her simply because of her gender.

Even though he appears a fair amount in The Post, Letts gets but one real memorable moment near the end, as he laughs delightedly at the audacity of Graham’s decision to push forward with a controversial story about the Pentagon Papers that might send Graham and her journalists to jail. It’s a moment not meant to be derisive or mocking, but almost revelatory and charmed; in this movie, more than Lady Bird, Letts wisely backs away from the spotlight in favor of strong female performers, but his ubiquity is still worth acknowledging.

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