In Victor Levin’s cross-cultural romance 5 to 7, Anton Yelchin plays Brian Bloom, a dime-a-dozen indie film character – an uninspired young writer whiling away the hours in his nicely outfitted New York apartment with books and his laptop, waiting for the muse to strike. He claims that some of the worst writing in the city is found at his own apartment. He wallpapers his apartment in rejection letters, and optimistically refutes his father Sam (Frank Langella)’s pleadings to consider law school.
Brian: “The fiction editor from The Atlantic added the word ‘sorry’ at the bottom of my latest rejection.”
Sam: “What does that mean?”
Brian: “It means I got close. It’s code.”
The film itself is relatively forgettable. It’s a sweet, well-intentioned attempt at a combination of an Audrey Hepburn romance, a Before film, and a Woody Allen film; but it falls short by playing into a healthy amount of French stereotypes (there’s a scene where Brian samples wine wearing a blindfold before being offered baguette to cleanse his palette) and abandoning all tension around its conceit. But despite the also-ran nature of the glib plot, the success of the film is entirely due to Yelchin’s performance. As Brian, his easy charm and earnestness, his ability to make a familiarly neurotic character so enjoyable to watch, unabashed optimism and tendency to speak in prose and quotes and all, so easy to love is what made the film work. While most actors as young as he was (24 at the time of filming) would attempt to hide their youth behind a phony snarky self-assurance, Yelchin wears every one of his young years proudly on his sleeve, fresh and open.
Waking up in the morning to the news that a celebrity has passed away is never a happy event, something that 2016 already knows a fair bit about, losing David Bowie, Alan Rickman, and Prince, among many others. It’s the loss of an artist, someone who influenced so many people with their talent and imagination, and of course, to those acquainted with them, a friend, family member, and collaborator gone. But this morning, looking at social media to see the horrible news that Anton Yelchin had been killed in a tragic accident, I felt a unique and surprising level of sadness, despite not really having any prior attachment to him, even though I’d seen a great amount of his work. It at first seemed like a hoax, a surreal piece of news that seemed too horrible, too tragic to be true. How could someone so young, so talented, only really at the beginning of what they had to offer the world, who starred in a film I gushed about only weeks ago, be gone so tragically and suddenly? Aged only 27, Yelchin was an actor who amassed an impressive and diverse list of credits over his 16 year career, moving effortlessly from child actor to rising adult star in television and film and blockbusters and indie films, working with everyone from J.J. Abrams to Jim Jarmusch. Whether playing a young designer falling in love with a soon-to-be departing exchange student (Like Crazy), a punk rocker fighting Neo-Nazis in the backwoods of Oregon (Green Room), or stepping into Walter Koenig’s shoes as Russian navigator Chekov (Star Trek), Yelchin, among other things, was a performer of versatility and emotional maturity beyond his years.
In most of what we saw of his career, Yelchin commonly played people in transition, young, charismatic men on the verge of something great, trying to find themselves in the world, and more often than not, possessing mild neuroses. As he did in 5 to 7, he approached these roles with an unpretentiousness and easy charm. Smart-mouthed rich kids became easily watchable, dopey rock-and-roll hangers on became endearing in their cluelessness. Even in a film such as Like Crazy, a micro-budget, mostly improvised indie romance that ultimately suffers under the weight of a contrived plot, it’s Yelchin and his co-star Felicity Jones that make their brisk romance passionate and believable. He had the look and character of the intelligent but humble classmate who sat quietly at the back of the classroom, one never realising the amazing things he was quietly doing.
It was with Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, far and away the best film of the year so far, released only weeks ago, that one began to realise that big things were only just around the corner for Yelchin himself. As the gangly punk rocker and audience proxy Pat, a reluctant warrior, he takes the audience on a bruised and bloody journey, where the vulnerability previously best known for endearingly naïve writers and romantic leads became crucial in feeling every hairpin turn in the plot as viscerally as it does. Pat stays and fights, not because it’s in his nature, but because he must. He makes the character one of realistic actions and reactions, a crucial point in making Saulnier’s film the riveting and unpredictable beast of human behaviour it is. He was no longer the naïve writer, baby-faced navigator, or teenaged son. At last, he was a dramatic leading man, and Hollywood had caught up, on the precipice of greatness.
But what was sure to be a long and amazing career of only bigger and better things will now only exist in imagination. His limitless talents had only been hinted at in his sadly cut-short career. He was sadly taken for granted and uncelebrated until now, but it was within reason – we thought we’d have many, many more years of only greater roles to do that. He’ll be remembered by the titular teenage psychiatrist in Charlie Bartlett, the warrior punk rocker, or the youthful navigator on board the USS Enterprise; impressive variety for someone so young. But these things will always have an air of sadness now. Because, in these moment, there’ll be a sense of what’s truly lost. A great talent, a talent we had barely scratched the surface of. We’d only, really, seen the first act.
Rest in peace, Anton Yelchin (1989 – 2016)