Let's remember this: There are no life lessons to be drawn from a life that's cut short tragically and publicly -- no grand meaning to it all -- when talent is suddenly taken away, especially when it’s young. And while 2016 saw the passing of many musicians, celebrities and public figures, the death of actor Anton Yelchin at age 27, one year ago this week, was particularly painful for the nature of the auto accident at his home that killed him.
It's a cliché of popular movie criticism, but Yelchin really was the best thing in almost any film he appeared in. His face was the one your eyes were drawn to; his phrasing and cadence the sounds that caught your ear. For a slight-of-frame young man with elfin features in a world of Christian Bales and Channing Tatums, he also made a staggeringly good play for action movie memorability. Whenever guns (or phasers) were being fired and sets blown up, Yelchin's the guy you'd see and think, "Yes: if this were real life, that guy would be me right there."
At the time of his death, Yelchin's role as Pavel Chekov in the rebooted Star Trek franchise was his best-known. Playing Chekov with a wide-eyed incredulity, and the kind of rolling accent that only someone born in St. Petersburg could get away with, Yelchin was relegated to a minor part amid a star-powered ensemble cast -- but still made a mark whenever onscreen.
Many of the tributes that immediately followed news of Yelchin's death dwelt on the giant “what if”-ness of a career cut short: the actor he could have become in later years once his puppy-ish youthful looks had settled into maturity, or the movies that grown actor would have made. But to focus on the films that'll never be made is to forget what fantastic, enjoyable work he'd already done.
Here, then, are three movies of Yelchin's -- all of them good, for different reasons -- that I'd personally recommend as a reminder.
'Green Room' (2015)
“Punks vs. Nazis in the woods”: Green Room’s essential setup appears designed to be yelled at a friend over loud music in a bar, but it really is that simple, and that visceral. A scrappy young hardcore band -- with Yelchin on guitar -- on tour in the Pacific Northwest accepts a shady “mostly boots and braces” gig in the middle of nowhere that turns out to be a white supremacist hangout. One accidentally witnessed murder of a Neo-Nazi later, and the band is under siege and marked for death by the venue’s organizers.
At 95 minutes, Green Room is so tight and so spare that it joins the pantheon of phenomenal siege movies like Assault on Precinct 13 and From Dusk 'til Dawn. Much has been made of its often overwhelming violence, and with just cause. But writer-director Jeremy Saulnier understands that we need to care deeply whether these young musicians live or die, dedicating some fantastic moments to that end in the setup -- and Yelchin’s at the heart of them.
Asked by a local interviewer at the outset of the movie for their “desert island” musical choices, the band agonize enthusiastically (“Misfits. No, The Damned. Misfits”), while Yelchin, as the pensive guitarist, refuses to commit. One hour of screen time later, amid the bloodshed, Yelchin's exhausted and harrowed band members ask each other the same question. This time, the (honest?) answers are Simon & Garfunkel and Prince -- but, true to character, Yelchin still can’t get the words out.
He’s the emotional heart of this movie, whose fretful demeanor in earlier scenes (even as he posits antagonizing the crowd with a cover of ‘Nazi Punks F*ck Off’) almost suggests an unconscious knowledge of the nastiness to come. Accordingly, it’s no accident that Saulnier chooses to inflict what’s probably this movie’s most harrowing act of violence (knife, arm, duct tape) upon his character, for maximum horror. Bring your strongest stomach.
Please don't let the godawful title put you off: This is a lovely little movie about the things you think you know when you're young, and, later, how much you find out you're wrong. Yelchin plays Jacob, an American college senior in Los Angeles who falls in love with British exchange student Anna (Felicity Jones) -- but almost immediately, she overstays her visa and finds herself forced back to England. What begins as a slight, universally recognizable story of youthful infatuation gradually morphs into something more complex: A long-distance relationship we follow over the years, charting how hopes and good intentions can become harder to cling to with time and distance.
There's a lot to appreciate and actually enjoy in this film, including a small but highly significant role for a young Jennifer Lawrence. But ultimately, this is 22-year-old Anton Yelchin’s show, and it’s a heartbreaker. He -- like Jones -- has a face and a demeanor that can make him seem older than his years, which has the hugely poignant effect of making you feel as if you’re already watching his older, more disappointed self even as he falls about giggling as a college student.
It’s this quiet sadness that gives Like Crazy what is -- for me -- its best moment early on, wherein the couple’s first date moves with late-night tipsiness to the dorm room. Anna promises to read some of her poetry on the condition that Jacob isn’t “allowed to laugh." Yelchin then either slurringly echoes "I'm not allowed to laugh" or "I won't laugh" -- it's difficult to hear, and even harder to verify, because this movie was improvised by the cast without a script. A lesser actor would have delivered this line straight into Jones' face, but Yelchin instead marvels it almost entirely to himself, as kind of an address in the mirror: How could this woman ever think I'd laugh at her?
Whether it's actorly intuition on his part or just really good direction, there's something bittersweet about the way the moment captures this truth about human relationships -- that it's almost always what we can't say, or what we mutter when we know it won't be heard, that means the most.
Craig Gillespie’s remake of the 1985 shlock classic has gotten lost amid the general vogue for needless horror remakes -- The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street -- that plagued the aughts. But this odd, offbeat and refreshingly funny horror comedy is different -- not least for its incongruous, antiseptic setting of the Vegas suburbs, a land of identikit curving dead ends and permanent dusk at the edge of the desert. (Reading screenwriter -- and Buffy alum -- Marti Noxon’s explanation for this makes one wonder why more horror movies aren’t set in this specific sandy wasteland: “Every other house there is abandoned. This is a world where people sleep all day and work all night. ... If I were a monster, I would totally move here.”)
At first glance, the star role in Fright Night would seem to be a nasty lead performance from Colin Farrell as the predatory vampire who moves next door to high school senior Yelchin and his mother (a great Toni Colette). But as in many other movies, Yelchin steals it from the showier star he's ostensibly supporting. His Charley Brewster defies the usual high-school stereotypes seen in horror movies: he’s not a insufferable jock, or a put-upon nerd either. Instead, he's an utterly endearing cool-nerd specimen, whose mounting panic at the danger posed to his family by the brutal Farrell Next Door is queasily infectious for a movie that’s meant to be a comedic horror film.
Even when his character makes utterly questionable choices, such as deciding salvation lies in the hands of a Criss Angel-esque Vegas magician (David Tennant, also having a blast), it’s a testament to Yelchin’s sheer likability that you watch the chaos unfold and say “yeah… I’d probably have done the same.” With its nice blend of banality and surreality, and some gratifyingly nasty scares, Fright Night is a great ride. Knowing that Steven Spielberg was heavily involved in the development of this movie -- an uncredited backseat role he infamously also played in the making of another suburban comedy-horror, Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982) -- only makes things all the sweeter.