After winning Best Actress in 2016 for her performance in Room, Brie Larson got the rest of the year off. She kept working, of course, but thanks to the vagaries of the business, we’ve had to wait until 2017 to see what the next stage of her career would bring. So far, the year’s brought two very different films — films that highlight not only Larson’s remarkable strengths, but also a possible world in which she didn’t get to use them as she should.
Larson’s post-Oscar return to the big screen came with Kong: Skull Island, Jordan Vogt-Roberts’s Vietnam-era revival of King Kong. Larson played a photographer documenting the “scientific” expedition to Skull Island; she got to run and gun along with the boys, but by the end of the film, she still came to occupy the Kong series’ “beauty” spot. Aside from that, she didn’t have much to do, a fate she shared with pretty much everyone in the cast except John C. Reilly. Regardless of how successful you felt Kong was, it was unabashedly a big-budget tentpole, designed to play as well — or better — overseas as it does here.
Larson’s second post-Oscar movie comes out this weekend. Written and directed by the British filmmaker Ben Wheatley, Free Fire tells the story of a black-market weapons sale gone bad, pitting a group of IRA members against a bunch of arms dealers in the bowels of an abandoned warehouse. Larson plays one of the arms dealers, and, as in Kong, she’s basically the only woman in the cast. Unlike Kong, however, Free Fire is an idiosyncratic little movie, and within its hour-long, pratfall-riddled gun battle, Larson’s gifts are put to good use.
As an actor, Larson has a remarkably expressive face. Unlike many performers that tend to come off as insincere or hammy when they register big emotions, Larson can play the scale, allowing her to not only emphasize the mood of the film around her, but also contradict it when necessary. That quality has served her extraordinarily well in her two biggest roles to date, Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12 and Room, which was directed by Lenny Abrahamson from Emma Donoghue’s adaptation of her own novel. Both movies artfully verge into melodrama, and Larson provides a steady hand on the wheel, raising and lowering the intensity so she reaches the appropriate emotional heights without spinning off into camp.
Free Fire is about as different from Short Term 12 and Room as Kong is, but it does share one thing in common with them: It lets Larson go big. In this case, she taps into the nuanced physicality she first demonstrated in Room; watching her limp and scramble through the warehouse is more interesting on its own than most blockbuster performances are ever allowed to be.
In fact, that sentiment hints at an issue facing every actor of Larson’s caliber, and especially women: So many roles just don’t give them the space to work. They’re performing in front of green screens or opposite 50-foot CGI monsters, and in those situations, there’s only so much they can do. The camera placement and coverage are largely determined by the effects rather than the performance.
While those parts have their place, and actors take them for a reason — and that reason isn’t always money — it’s a pity to think that a performer as flexible and magnetic as Larson might be mostly confined to them, either because that’s all they get offered, those are the only movies that can match their quote, or, in a not-so-distant future, those are the only movies that exist. You can see how someone as immensely talented as Jennifer Lawrence is facing that dilemma: Besides her films with David O. Russell, effects-driven tentpoles are the only type of work she’s done since catapulting to stardom, though her coming collaboration with Darren Aronofsky offers the potential for a new chapter.
So far, Larson has done a great job of balancing the demands of blockbuster duty with films that showcase her gifts, and there’s more of that to come, with Cretton’s The Glass Castle and her directorial debut Unicorn Store both slated for this year, even as she goes full-on into the blockbuster breach with her upcoming role as Captain Marvel. After all, there’s no reason not to do both — actors as good as Larson should make as many superhero movies as they want. But if that turns into a world in which they only make superhero movies, it would be a pity.