The actors who I tend to call my favorites are ones that almost act as the film’s secret weapon. The ones you’d never suspect to be the scene-stealers you end up remembering most more than even the so-called stars you would normally go to those movies for. The ones like Paul Walter Hauser in I, Tonya, Seu Jorge in The Life Aquatic, and of course Brian Falduto – aka the “you’re tacky and I hate you” kid from School of Rock. Independent film allows you to find these kind of actors in spades. You can very easily imagine them breaking out in a performance that catapults them to world-renowned fame, even if you’d also want them to stay relatively under-the-radar, as if that status allows those kinds of actors to excel at their very best. It’s that and many other reasons why I have decided to raise a toast to one Christopher Abbott. It’s about time you knew his name if you’ve had the misfortune of not.
Born and raised in Connecticut and originating from stage, Abbott made his screen debut in Sean Durkin’s 2011 psychodrama Martha Marcy May Marlene and has since been a prominent face in some of the best and most memorable indies of the past decade. Obviously there are plenty of qualities regarding his work that I’ll go over in spades here, but I think it’s appropriate I start off by saying that the best thing I can say regarding Abbott is that he’s still relatively under the radar. And for an actor as young as he still is, that makes it more exciting for me to talk about these three films that I feel best encapsulate his abilities as an artist. They are all pretty much completely different from one another, but their binding tie is shared by what he brings to each one that I feel couldn’t have been approached by any other. In these films you can see something enigmatic about his eyes, the spontaneity of his actions, or the ambiguity of his character that make me very much look forward to the body of work I can only hope he continues to build. I really have no hesitation calling him my personal favorite actor working today.
1) POSSESSOR (2020)
Brandon Cronenberg seems insistent on picking up where his father David left off, at least in terms of psychologically-tinged (and sexually-charged) sci-fi body horror. An intensely visceral experience of world-building and mental warfare, there’s no easy way to delve into Possessor without at least one of your five senses going haywire. Set in a near-future laden with vape smoke, Andrea Riseborough plays an assassin who, thanks to mind-implant technology, can enter unknowing bodies to take out clients under the fullest guise of anonymity. His latest body? Colin, a soon-to-be-married programmer played by Abbott, who we soon find out has a mind that may need some taming.
From having to technically play two characters under one self, to utilizing the human body in ways and actions that are frankly hard to forget, it is a challenging, overwhelming performance that feels like it can only be that way for it to truly work. Over time, the melding of Riseborough and Abbott’s characters soon lend themselves into something resembling disintegration of both people, which only gives Colin more layers to where you wouldn’t even know where to begin. It’s such a towering labyrinth of a performance that in the scene where he’s forced to remove himself from a party by assaulting the host, and is then taken away while repeatedly belting out, “I’M A F***ING GIANT”, you almost have no choice but to believe it.
2) IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017)
To say that Trey Edward Shults’ post-apocalyptic chamber thriller got a bad rap from audiences upon release would be a mere understatement. Initially billed as A24’s next Big Horror Sensation, it would check out pretty easily as to why people felt angry and duped by the nightmarish, hope-deficient psychodrama they got instead. But the reaction it got proved to be just as much of an artistic injustice as its marketing, considering the minimalism of Shults’ story does nothing but fuel the full-throttle amount of paranoia that infects this tale of families colliding at the end of the world. The most frightening thing about the film is that it really does feel like the end.
Joel Edgerton leads a family of three – a wife and a teenage son, all holed up in a spacious but remote home in upper-east New York. Peaceful, right? But then you factor in the contagious illness that has done nothing but ravage the majority of human life and it unfortunately becomes something far more timely. After putting a succumbed grandfather to (brutal) rest, the family becomes the target of an unexpected ambush from a man played by Abbott. Apprehended and later tied up against a tree, he is interrogated by Edgerton’s character in a mesmerizing single shot sequence. His life simply spills out, revealing a family of his own that needs shelter, and despite having no reason to do anything besides leave him to rot, Edgerton’s character lets him and his family in. In the entire scene, Abbott yields such a geyser of pathos that would convince anyone to do the same. But all it takes for the chance of surfacing community to unwind completely out of control is the opening of a door, and the lack of an answer for who opened it. Trust dissolves overnight, and violence takes its form, culminating in one of the most effectively traumatizing climaxes of the past decade. But through grippingly strong filmmaking and inspired aspect ratio choices, it becomes a nightmare you couldn’t wake up from if you tried, let alone look away.
3) JAMES WHITE (2015)
I figured it made enough sense to close this out with not just a starring vehicle for Abbott, but the film that introduced me to him in the first place. In retrospect, an immensely raw and grounded cancer drama would never have been ideal viewing during my period as a depressed film school drop-out, and as much as I wanted to hate this movie for what it made me feel at the time, there’s no possible way I couldn’t come back around to the power of it, and it’s fitting that it’s quite literally Abbott’s show, considering writer/director Josh Mond crafted the titular role specifically for him. Probably needless to say at this point, but even when acting against intimidating players like Cynthia Nixon and Scott Mescudi – aka Kid Cudi, Abbott’s performance is one that shines even in the film’s utmost amount of darkness.
James White needs help that he refuses at every step of the way. His father has just died, and his mother – played by Nixon, is in the process of dying. Staying beside her as terminal cancer renders her weaker every day, James gets by on the most self-destructive of behavior; in the form of bar fights and showing up to job interviews reeking of alcohol. He is a frustrating, complicated character who is almost destined to turn away viewers seeking a more conventional protagonist with an inherent arc. But by leaning on these decisions that further distance him from any semblance of an epiphany, he becomes something less of a character until he’s only just someone. A kind of someone you could see alone in the corner of a bar, or anxiously walking about the streets of downtown New York. The kind of someone in which you don’t think it at first, but your eyes are on them enough to where you want to know more about them. What brought them there.
Christopher Abbott gives one of the most staggeringly underrated performances of the 2010s. He both embodies and releases such a furious air of discomfort in every confrontation – not just with the people close to him, but the disease slowly taking his mother away from him, and yet enough empathy is felt to where you want more than anything to forgive each bad decision that he can’t seem to stop making. By the time his character becomes further more defined, it’s also where we get to the second extended-shot sequence that I’d be sore if I didn’t mention here. A single, static handheld shot on the floor of a bathroom, it is a quiet moment between James and his mother – very well nearing her own end, where in a last ditch effort to provide any feeling of comfort, he conjures an alternate reality for her where they live in Paris. James is married with children, who are taken by his mother to the Louvre where they can see the Mona Lisa. Happily returning to a husband who loves her.
It is all in his words, but the sound design shifts them into something that feels just real enough to know that despite never saying it at that point, James has a love for her that couldn’t be more real. By the time he finally does say he loves her when she’s only a husk, it almost doesn’t matter that it’s too late. He already said it on the bathroom floor. It’s this scene alone that serves as golden a testament to Abbott’s power as an actor as there could ever be. It’s a film for anyone who is terrified of having to grieve those they love. It understands that there’s no easy way to avoid the confusion of death, but Abbott makes the acceptance of it just as felt.