Kate Lyn Sheil is a one-of-a-kind actor, like one of those rare lunar events you better grab the telescope for, lest you wait 60 years for that true blue moon. From her early mumblecore days when she seemed the Anna Karina to Joe Swanberg’s Godard, or the Michelle Williams to Amy Seimetz’s Kelly Reichardt, through intense horror films, myriad shorts, and quirky dramedies, Sheil has made a career out of tipping scales. A good film becomes very good when she crosses over, and great becomes greater.
Beloved in indie film circles, Sheil never ceases to surprise; she’s like an advent calendar over time, revealing new treasures that retroactively redefine our presuppositions, all the while still impenetrable and impossible to fully know. The best actors are arguably like that. We love them to pieces, because we only see pieces, chameleonic shards in shifting light. You don’t know Willem Dafoe or Meryl Streep, despite the endless reveals; you’ll never know Ingrid Bergman, and you’ll never stop wanting to.
This is a cursory study of Sheil’s work, sure, but beyond simple simping, it’s also a portrait of perfect actors in general, because they all share a kind of impregnable magic. Like the best actors, she’s komorebi, that untranslatable zen beauty one finds as light shifts through leaves. If you haven’t heard of her or seen her films, here’s where to start; hopefully, she’ll join the ranks of household names soon.
Hipsters and Ennui
Some of Sheil’s early work captures a very specific 2010s feeling of Williamsburg irony, jokingly mispronounced as ennui. In Alex Ross Perry’s early, subtly misanthropic studies of super hipsters, The Color Wheel and Listen Up Philip. Like many of her films, she’s not front and center, but playfully colors outside the lines as quietly cool, somewhat sad but snarky small characters.
Perhaps the greatest instance of this is in Rick Alverson’s masterpiece, The Comedy, perhaps the apotheosis of ironic detachment. Starring the brilliant comedian Tim Heidecker in one of the most stunning dramatic performances given by any comedic talent, the film follows a wealthy man-child lost in the depths of anhedonia. He is constantly searching for a feeling, often going to disturbingly uncomfortable lengths to try and capture one, insulting cab drivers, acting like an idiot in a church, and generally disrupting people’s lives.
He meets a waitress (Sheil) at a diner where he decides to work (a kind of sh*ts and giggles gig), and she almost seems as distant and morbidly funny as him. Sheil is charming in a too-cool-for-school way, but when he invites her on his boat one evening, it leads to one of the most hauntingly unforgettable moments in recent memory. They flirt and mess around, but then she’s suddenly stricken with what appears to be an epileptic fit. The rich, bored man stares at her as she flops on the floor. He doesn’t feel anything. Maybe she’s doing the feeling for him — and us.
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Kate Lyn Sheil and Sexuality as Provocation
Sheil is unafraid to go to very vulnerable lengths in her films, able to bare not just her body in provocative ways but something beneath the flesh as well, and yet always seems to weild the power in these situations as an actor. That’s how it feels in her latest film, The Seeding, by director Barnaby Clay. She’s at once a kind of naked solace, but also mysteriously unsettling as a woman trapped in the desert. It’s not just nudity as a physical process, of course; it’s a metaphysical nakedness that somehow undresses the viewer as well. She’s almost intimidating in this way. After a brief prologue, she begins Joe Swanberg’s masterful Full Moon trilogy (Silver Bullets, Art History, The Zone, all 2011) literally howling at the moon, dress flowing, all so woodland.
In many ways, few directors have captured both Sheil’s stunning beauty and her quiet strangeness like Joe Swanberg (except the aforementioned Seimetz; more on her later). With furious streaks of violin, Silver Bullets opens with Swanberg himself playing footage of Sheil in slow-motion, pausing at times, catching the stunning glow of her hair in false lighting. He’s obsessive over her and jealous of her new director (played by Ti West); he watches footage of her taking a shower over and over again. She comes across shy and subtle, but there’s a sneaky knowledge in her eyes of what she does to people. She’s fearless, but it’s like she knows something we don’t. That gets more explicit and weird in The Zone, about a sexual encounter between characters which confuses the actors who are playing them.
Suffice it to say, it’s hard to think of many other actors who could dance topless to percussive electronica while wearing a werewolf mask in a five-minute-long static shot and make you question the nature of relationships, jealousy, artifice, and sex.
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Actors Acting as Actors
As is evident, the Full Moon trilogy is very much about the art of acting and the fiction of filmmaking (with acting as a kind of lycanthropy). It’s an interesting facet of Sheil’s career, a kind of meta tendency toward self-reflexive trickery. Of course, some of this is because of the family affair of mumblecore, where actors and directors blended into each other, often making movies about themselves. Swanberg and Seimetz, Lawrence Michael Levine, Kentucker Audley, Lena Dunham, Sophia Takal, Ti West, Jane Adams, Larry Fessenden — they were all starring in and directing each other’s films (while Gerwig, Bujalski, Duplass, and Duplass were doing the same, mostly elsewhere). It was a truly special time in cinema that feels sadly over.
Perhaps the pinnacle of this meta moment for Sheil is Robert Greene’s masterpiece, Kate Plays Christine. Like a lot of Greene’s work, it’s impossible to tell where documentary ends and fiction begins, something heightened by the fact that this is so often the case with Sheil, one of the most naturalistic actors today. The film follows Sheil as she prepares for an extremely heavy role (in a film that technically doesn’t exist, kind of), portraying the legendary newscaster Christine Chubbuck, who shot herself on live television. It’s a fascinating meditation on acting, media, melancholy, and that very impenetrable quality we’ve previously mentioned.
There’s something primal about sex and death, here. Cinematically mirroring Sheil-as-Chubbuck, there’s an astounding scene in Silver Bullets in which Sheil rehearses for a role with an unloaded gun. The scene is mostly a reflection in a mirror, with her pointing the gun at herself, and perhaps at her boyfriend (Swanberg) on the bed behind her. He points his fingers like a gun at her and ignores her question. She gets irritated. He stands up and grabs her, kissing her while she holds the gun, a lasting passion that feels classically gorgeous, immensely sexy, and a little disturbing. Eventually, she’s on top of him in bed, and the gun gets transferred to his hand. He points it to her head as they kiss.
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Sheil Dies Tomorrow: Post-Millennial Depression
Sex and death, or at least violence, was present in one of Sheil’s all-time greatest roles, Crystal in Sun Don’t Shine. Seimetz’s grimy, millennial Bonnie and Clyde featured two young Floridian rebels with a car but no cause, played by Sheil and Kentucker Audley. Audley is another one of those perfect young actors who gets no respect in the danger field of mainstream cinema, but who has given incredible performances in films like Christmas, Again and the magically cool Strawberry Mansion. Sheil and Audley are irresistible independently, but together, playing chaotic criminal lovers, they’re a wet death dream.
In Sun Don’t Shine, Sheil is stunning as a young murderess who somehow exudes innocence. You’re never quite sure how manipulative or genuine she is, how honest or how simply crazy she is. Audley plays an increasingly frustrated and violent lover who is destroying his life to help her, resulting in one of the most twisted and melancholic relationships on film.
Seimetz would redirect the death drive of that film into one of the most intelligent studies of obsessive thinking, fatalism, and suicidal ideation of all time in the film, She Dies Tomorrow. The film supposedly stemmed from the reactions Seimetz would get from people when she had anxiety attacks or discussed them, but with it being released in July 2020, it suddenly became one of the most important films of the COVID era. It follows a kind of contagious verbal virus, simpler than your average Pontypool — a woman becomes convinced that she’s going to die tomorrow.
Sheil plays Amy (Seimetz?), a beautiful but lonely alcoholic in a new house. Amy upsets her friend, Jane, after obsessing over her own death, but soon Jane is practically infected with the same existential realization. She’s going to die. She really feels it, not just hypothetically or intellectually, but on a molecular, intuitive level.
Sheil is the perfect person for this. Typically soft-spoken with a face that seems all too malleable to melancholy, Sheil is in many ways the true mascot of 21st century sadness. Of course, she could play the happiest woman in the world and laugh for two hours, and the film would be great, but she has perfected the energy of post-millennial misery — capitalism is a cage, climatic catastrophe is unstoppable, student debt is insurmountable, but a tinge of indifference keeps things from being too melodramatic. Nuggets of nihilism and specks of hedonism keep it moving and, on a good day, make it even seem appealing.
Perfect actors are like that; you see the generation in them. These ciphers reflect our projections back to us, showing us how we really feel. Rorschach Sheil, tell us how you really feel? We won’t know (impenetrable), but by golly we want more clues. So, casting agents of the world, unite and hand it over.
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