Back in 2014, Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain teamed up for the first time to make J.C. Chandor’s brilliantly realized, Sidney Lumet-inspired crime thriller, A Most Violent Year. The film garnered great reviews (and a Golden Globe nomination for Chastain in the category of Best Supporting Actress), but few saw it and the film went completely unrecognized by the Oscars.
We happy few who did get the chance to take in A Most Violent Year not only recognized the film’s overall excellence, but also the electric chemistry between Isaac and Chastain. When the announcement of Isaac and Chastain coming back together to do a series remake of Bergman’s classic film, Scenes From a Marriage, the level of enthusiasm was highly-pitched even before the two shared a steamy moment on the red carpet at the series premiere at the Venice Film Festival.
In the seven years between A Most Violent Year and Scenes From a Marriage, both actors saw their careers escalate to the near household name level, and given their greater status and the strength of their personal connection while promoting HBO’s Scenes, expectations for the limited series were fairly well off the charts.
And then it came out.
While the reviews for the series were largely positive, many critics gave it a pass for being an “actor’s showcase” as opposed to a full-on rave for the series as a whole. It’s not hard to understand why. Scenes takes a searing look at a couple who aren’t good for each other, but also can’t escape one another. The level of emotional violence within their performances can be almost impossible to watch, even when the work by both performers is so committed and believable.
To describe their relationship as “love/hate” may sound cliché, but in the case of Isaac’s Jonathan and Chastain’s Mira, the shoe fits (to use another cliché), if all too painfully as Sade once sang. Due to the often scabrous behavior of both characters, the show became polarizing for critics and viewers alike, with Chastain taking (quite unfairly) the brunt of the tired-ass “these characters aren’t likable” perspective.
A view I find maddening. I’ve never believed that the characters on screen need to be people you would root for, only that they be interesting. In the case of Jonathan’s academic and Mira’s corporate mover and shaker, both are completely fascinating. Sure, they are often self-destructive, but the “why” is what’s most fascinating.
In the case of Jonathan, the slowly unveiled clues add up a little more easily. He grew up in a strict religious environment and for a Jewish man with his background to marry a shiksa was both an affront to his faith and his family. Mira remains more of a mystery throughout. While one gets more than a few hints that her restless ambition must come from a difficult childhood, that loop is never quite closed. Some might take that as a flaw in character development, but if you’ve lived any length of life, you’ve likely met a few people in your time who are never truly knowable. Mira is one of those people.
Despite the critical respect paid to the two actors and the popularity of both actors in their community, I wasn’t surprised to see the show underperform with the Emmys. Still, it seemed particularly painful that Isaac, however incredibly well-deserved, received a nomination for Best Actor in a Limited series (the show’s only nod) and his partner in figurative crime was overlooked.
However, the work of Isaac here (and in Moon Knight) has made this season one hell of a terrific one for the already highly-esteemed actor. I’m sure there might have even been some vote-splitting between his two television projects that could have led to no nomination at all. Thankfully, that is not the case.
It’s probably accurate to say that, barring a surprise, it’s entirely unlikely that Isaac will have his name called when the envelope is opened. My suspicion (and know that my awards prognostication skills are weaker than watered down beer) is that Michael Keaton is the front runner in this category for Hulu’s Dopesick—an okay to somewhat middling project that Keaton elevated with his presence.
In fact, I don’t think Isaac is even in second place. My guess would be that if there’s going to be an upset in this category it is likely going to come in the form of Sebastian Stan for the wildly overpraised Pam and Tommy (also on Hulu).
By my lights, the only marriage of performance and project when it comes to quality that is in the same area code as Isaac’s work on Scenes would be Andrew Garfield’s outstanding work on the best season of True Detective that isn’t a season of True Detective, Hulu’s (again, again) marvelous take on a real-life murder mystery in a fundamentalist Utah Mormon community, Under the Banner of Heaven.
In a true case of splitting hairs, I would advocate for Isaac over Garfield for giving a slightly more complex performance that is both full of nuance and play-it-to-the-hilt moments. Perhaps the best example of the former is Isaac’s Jonathan trying to maintain a measure of composure and normalcy after Chastain’s Mira makes him aware of a long-running affair that will likely lead to divorce.
Whether it’s Jonathan doing dishes or talking to his wife in their bed after learning of her adultery, you can see the shock and sadness in his eyes as he tries, unsuccessfully, to avoid begging her to stay. It’s the kind of just below the surface acting that never lets you forget that the character is on the verge of a panic attack.
On the other end of the spectrum is the shocking and largely wordless scene that takes place at the threshold of their now broken home. A heated argument takes them to their front door, where all of Mira’s disdain and anger boils over until she strikes Jonathan repeatedly until he finally hits her back. As the sequence ends, the two combatants crumble to the floor as much from emotional exhaustion as from their traded blows.
It’s an extraordinary moment in a show full of simmering anger that finally spills over the brim. And once again, it’s that look of futility in Isaac’s face that makes it clear how much he has lost—not just his wife and home, but his dignity as well.
You seldom see this level of vanity-free work from A-list stars that doesn’t call attention to itself in a “I’m going for the Emmy” kind of way. It’s the kind of acting that crawls under your skin and resides there like a pestilence. It’s not pretty (even if the actors are), but it’s real. Perhaps too real for many viewers and the Academy outside of Isaac’s nomination.
As much as I wish that both actors had been nominated for their twin tour de force performances, Isaac is the one who made the Emmy cut. Should he win, I would see it as a victory for both him and Chastain. I suspect Isaac will tell you that himself if his name is called.
I sure as hell would love to hear that speech.