Craig here, back with the third and final season of 'Take Three'.
This week: Melissa Leo
Take One: Red State (2011)
Leo gives an ugly yet riveting supporting performance as Sara in Kevin Smith’s Red State. She’s the matriarch with no maternal manners of the Five Points Trinity Church and wife to Michael Parks’ Phelps-like religious nutjob. We first see her open a trailer door to three horny teens who, we eventually gather, she entraps with the promise of a ‘good time’. She’s chugging a beer, resignedly eyeing these unsuspecting victims, playing her part in their “punishment”. Leo makes Sara immediately unlikeable. She’s a fully paid-up cult member either lost in ecstatic zeal (when Parks’ Abin spouts his bile-filled sermons) or riddled with utter contempt for ‘outsiders’ (all other times). But at no point does Leo deliver a two-dimensional portrait of hatefulness.
It takes a seasoned pro to make such a distanced and indefinably spiteful presence feel truly compelling. There’s something horribly absorbing about the way Leo carries herself. [More after the jump]
She convinces us that Sara’s capable of any level of evil. When, at one point, she discovers that her daughter might be about to bail on the clan, we see, through the way Leo deftly plays the scene, that all it would take is a bullet to come between her beliefs and her brood. Smith’s film escalates toward ripely ridiculous territory, but the acting remains committed. Leo’s performance was lodged in my mind, like a rotting splinter stuck in flesh, long after the film ended.
Take Two: Mildred Pierce (2011)
It’s a testament to Leo’s versatility that the same year as Red State she gave a thoughtful, endearing performance as possibly the nicest ever Depression-era neighbour. In Todd Haynes’ version of Mildred Pierce. Lucy Gessler is another in the long tradition of supportive neighbours sitting alongside, say, Toni Collette’s Kitty in The Hours or Patricia Clarkson’s Eleanor in Far from Heaven. If suffering housewife Mildred needed a nearby shoulder to cry on, Lucy was there as a rock of emotional help. Alongside a career-best contender turn from Kate Winslet, Leo stood out from a cast of strong female actors; Mare Winningham, Hope Davis and Evan Rachel Wood were stellar, but Leo surprised the most.
We hadn't seen much of this style of acting from her before. She’s grounded and less harried than in much of her other work (21 Grams, Conviction etc). Lucy is content, placid, comfortably off and she exudes calm. She offers the kind of sage yet salty advice befitting a woman long-married to a man in the bootleg business. She doles this out to Mildred, practical and proud, as a mother might to a daughter yet there's no melodramatic mincing of words. Lucy herself may be childless but the tilt of her head and wry smile suggests she’s seen some crazy things, had some jazzy times despite her proper conduct. Imagine a five-part series dedicated to Lucy’s life.
Take Three: Frozen River (2008)
Leo’s most high-profile performance so far is her Oscar-winning turn in The Fighter but her first Oscar-nominated turn as Ray Eddy in Courtney Hunt’s poverty drama Frozen River remains the most compelling. The first shot of her (a slow track from her battered footwear up to her tired face, whilst she sits smoking out of the side door of her car) plainly captures Leo giving us everything we need as introduction to Ray. She has two sons, an absconded husband, a shitty job, a mobile home. There's no festive cheer for Christmas which is just round the corner. Her life and history is written in permanent worry lines. Her demeanour is downcast and her face a rag of toil. You could hazard a guess that she’s seen at least 33 bad years of her 48 – all of them spent on the outside looking in. Ray lives a peripheral existence in every respect: she lives in the middle of nowhere, either invisible or edged out by a society that doesn’t know or care about her much; just like the illegal immigrants that she agrees to ferry from Canada across the titular expanse of water. She does this smuggling for quick cash, of course, but guns and trouble soon follow. All of this is ostensibly done to earn the money for a new trailer home, but it's actually for a new beginning, a complete break from her sorry situation. This powerfully persuasive performances tells the story of what mothers will do for their children.
Three more films for the taking: 21 Grams (2003), The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), The Fighter (2010)