Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Runner-Ups: Elisabeth Moss in "Queen of Earth" (2015)

Scene from Queen of Earth
Every Oscar season, there are a handful of actors who get tagged with the "snubbed" moniker. While it is always unfortunate to see our favorites not honored with at very least a nomination, there's another trend that goes largely unnoticed: those who never even got that far. The Runner-Ups is a column meant to honor the greats in cinema who put in phenomenal work without getting the credit that they deserved from The Academy. Join me every other Saturday as I honor those who never received any love. This list will hopefully come to cover both the acting community, and the many crew members who put the production together.

The Runner-Up: Elisabeth Moss
Film: Queen of Earth (2015)
Oscar Nominees in the Best Actress category (2015):
-Brie Larson (Room) *WINNER
-Cate Blanchett (Carol)
-Jennifer Lawrence (Joy)
-Charlotte Rampling (45 Years)
-Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn)

*NOTE: I apologize for taking two months off from the promised column of The Runner-Ups. While I will be looking to start Failed Oscar Campaigns in September, I hope to right some wrongs and, for this year only, make the column weekly while trying to highlight filmmakers who deserved Oscars but didn't get them. Thank you for your understanding and I hope to be more professional in the future.

When people look back at the grand scheme of TV history, there will be a handful of shows that make the unanimous list of the best. There's The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, and of course Mad Men. The final show on that list hasn't been off the air for too long, but has seen its cast turn in some memorable work since. Jon Hamm was great in Baby Driver, and Elisabeth Moss has been... well, let's pull back for a second. Moss has had quite possibly one of the greatest post-Mad Men runs of the entire cast. If somebody had to ask why, just know this one thing. Just in 2017 alone, she is in The Handmaid's Tale and the upcoming Top of the Lake: China Girl, the latter of which received a standing ovation at Cannes earlier this year. To say the least, Moss is at least having the best immediate success of the group.

But what exactly makes her so great? In some ways, Mad Men was based around her character's slow rise to power. It reflected a shift in the sexism of office politics. Suddenly Moss' Peggy Olsen was leading projects and becoming a taste maker. Maybe it's because of the countless hours of work she put into that series, but she developed a charisma that has done her well on other projects. The Handmaid's Tale manages to use her so effectively with no more than a smile. Then there's what is possibly one of the most underrated works of recent years: director Alex Ross Perry's Queen of Earth. It's an intimate drama also starring Katharine Waterston as sisters who escape for a weekend, but discover that they have some personal grudges in their lives.

Moss is the centerpiece of the film for obvious reasons. She is the unhinged sister, whose life has been perfect in a way that makes her brief moment of failure so frustrating. Instead of having an eccentric breakdown that has become expected of dramas, she goes insular. Her struggles read in her watery eyes and the strain in her body. She wants the success that she feels she deserves. Suddenly by the halfway mark, she is a horror story. She is the person who is causing trouble for everyone else. Waterston is great in the supporting role, but it's mostly Moss' ability to slowly get to the disturbing places that her character goes that ends up servicing the plot very well. 

It's not a particularly complex drama otherwise. Perry's directing style manages to have a lot of basis in fantasized realism. Several of the shows look like disjointed forms of the two sisters, even in an otherwise quaint conversation. It throws the viewer into a distorted view of these two women's lives. One is left wondering why things look so odd. While it has a lot of dramatic flair in the vein of a Bette Davis movie, Perry's style is so much greater than simple being a gimmick where even the soundtrack has some odd flourishes. It all builds a cerebral experience of which cause the audience to feel unhinged, unsure of what's to come. Moss may be at her most shameless here, but it's also Perry's direction that helps the film feel like something greater is going on, even if it's just essentially a woman having a mental breakdown.

There is a scene towards the end that more than justifies Moss' weird behavior. In a long monologue, she explains how Waterston has let her down. It isn't one with glamour or really even poise. What it does have is Moss being rabid as she bluntly and without emotion tells the story in detail. It's a passage that doesn't need visual accompaniment beyond Moss. She knows how to deliver each word with purpose. Everyone merely needs to react the right way for the scene to work. By the end, it's not totally impossible to believe that Moss will pull a knife on Waterston and ruin her life in a more permanent way. It's a complicated story in one character's mind, and it shows just how intense and dedicated Moss will be to any project that you stick her in.

While I do get the feeling like she'll be more of a TV success story, I do hope that she does recognized in the film world eventually. She has been doing odd projects here or there that have some value (The One I Love), but they don't compare to what she does in a serialized format. Maybe it could just be that Mad Men, Top of the Lake, and The Handmaid's Tale have given her juicy roles to explore over hours. Even then, Queen of Earth is a suggestion that she is something greater when she's allowed to play characters with deeply conflicted cores who can snap without playing too campy to the camera. This is a film that may not grab the world and convince everyone that Moss is a movie star, but it's one of the things that got me hoping that she'll get an Oscar nomination one of these days. She's so good here that all it will take is the right role. 

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