The tragic death of 27-year-old Anton Yelchin, who was killed early Sunday morning, marks the premature end of an actor who had much left to offer. He leaves behind an almost staggering body of work for someone his age, with 65 credits on IMDb. Over a decade-and-a-half’s worth of performances, Yelchin established himself as the rare, young leading man — and, in particular, the rare, young, American leading man — who could convincingly play both charismatic and vulnerable.
But of Yelchin’s roles, one stands out as both the embodiment of what he could do onscreen and a reflection of his professional arc. In Like Crazy, the debut of writer-director Drake Doremus, Yelchin plays Jacob, an American college student who falls in love with his British classmate, Anna, played by Felicity Jones. Imbued with a deliberate and, at-times, excruciating realism — achieved via claustrophobic handheld camerawork and depictions of intimacy bordering on voyeurism — Like Crazy is a Romeo and Juliet story that dares to let the two lovers be together and still remain a tragedy.
It’s a tightrope act that didn’t work for every viewer, but it did manage to win the Grand Jury Prize at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, and much of its success is owed to Yelchin’s performance. Via Jacob, the film performs a vivisection on a love affair. We see him fall for Anna; we see him cling to her before she leaves; we see his joy when she returns. Yelchin projects the agony and ecstasy of being in love, portraying Jacob in many contradictions, as a petty empath and generous romantic, an adoring partner and a desperate, fearful child.
Yelchin’s youthfulness was as much a curse as a blessing. After playing a few headlining roles, he’d arrived at a crossroads in recent years. Like all actors whose careers begin in childhood, he had to transition from one persona into another: from the precocious everyboy of films like Alpha Dog and Charlie Bartlett to a grown man playing grown-man parts. But his young-looking face didn’t exactly co-operate, making him a hard sell as an adult leading man with Hollywood tending to favor the brawny and grizzled. Plenty of actors before him had faced the same challenge, from Elijah Wood to Michael Cera, and Yelchin appeared to have found his way through — he’d turned to TV, with roles upcoming in Guillermo Del Toro’s Trollhunters and the Stephen King adaptation Mr. Mercedes; and the type of character acting that drew on his latent intensity, as in Jeremy Saulnier’s terrific recent Green Room, in which Yelchin basically cries for 90 minutes. And the role that he might be most widely known for — as Chekov in the rebooted Star Trek — capitalizes on his boyishness as a means of comic relief and heightened tension.
In Like Crazy, though, it provided an opportunity. The movie’s success resides in the way it shows the growth of two people with and apart from each other, as a couple and as individuals. Jacob begins as a carefree goofball, and ends up traumatized. While Doremus’s vision of love’s cruelty can be strange and alienating, Yelchin never is: No matter how bleak the film becomes, Yelchin gives it texture and grace. Because Yelchin and Jones spend so much of the movie apart, each needs to make the other’s presence felt at all times. Yelchin’s Jacob seems constantly haunted.
For actors, there’s range, and there’s depth. Yelchin’s filmography shows his range, but in Like Crazy, we saw his depth. There was no way to predict what lay ahead in the actor’s career — but considering what he had already shown us, it was impossible not to be excited to find out.