Elisabeth Moss is having a moment at the movies. In 2019, she had a memorable supporting role in Jordan Peele’s “Us” and drew rave reviews and Independent Spirt Award nomination for playing an unhinged rock star in “Her Smell”. She faced her biggest test yet with “The Invisible Man,” released last week, which requires her to carry an intelligent and crowd-pleasing horror film, acting largely against an empty room. The film, an smash update of the classic monster movie for the Me Too era, succeeds entirely due to Moss’s thrilling and emotionally vulnerable performance. She is now, finally, a movie star.
And yet her ascension hardly feels sudden. Moss has been in our lives – on the small screen – for over 20 years. She played Zoey Bartlet, the president’s teenage daughter, on “The West Wing”; personified second-wave feminism as Peggy Olson in “Mad Men”; anchored the little-seen but beloved female detective story “Top of the Lake”; and of course is currently leading the buzzy adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Has any other dramatic television actress reached so many peaks? I can’t think of any. Moss is the Julia Louis-Dreyfus of television drama, achieving the rare feat of having starred in multiple iconic series. Her taste is impeccable, and she is a master at slowly revealing character over the course of a series. These qualities server her well in cinema, too, but her ascension to the big screen has been slower. She recently gained momentum in two films by indie director Alex Ross Perry, “Listen up Philip” and “Queen of Earth.” Perry has long specialized in creating unlikeable characters, and he found his muse in Moss. She is deeply sympathetic in her television roles, but looking at her filmography, you see an actress who specializes in playing real-life villains, not bad people but people who nonetheless make life difficult for the rest of us.
Perhaps that’s why her performance in “The Invisible Man” feels so revolutionary. For the first time ever, we are entirely and unabashedly sympathetic to an Elisabeth Moss movie character. As the widow of an abusive husband, Moss sinks deep into her character’s fear. When she starts to suspect he is alive and torturing her with an invisibility suit, she leans into another archetype: the person who knows the truth but who no one will believe. Finally, she embodies female empowerment when she seeks revenge on her abuser. It’s a perfect narrative for earning an audience’s sympathies, and, while it might indicate that Moss’s days playing abrasive characters are behind her, it could signal a bigger movie career for an actor who has already mastered the small screen.