The Curious Case of Jessica Chastain

The Curious Case of Jessica Chastain

Who in the world is Jessica Chastain?  And more importantly, where did she come from?  As if by sleight of hand, she seems to have appeared out of the air, clear and fully formed.  So far this year she has co-starred in five films, several of them critically-acclaimed, including one by legendary director Terrence Malick.  Soon, she will be seen in Coriolanus, where she takes on Shakespeare and Ralph Fiennes.

None of this would seem especially notable for a prolific actor.  But Chastain deserves special mention: having only appeared in three films in three years, she is now a part of six in twelve months.  She was recently nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, and won Best Supporting Actress from the New York Film Critics Circle and Los Angeles Film Critics Association.  If you put stock in the awards pundits’ early predictions, she will likely be nominated for the Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild, and Academy Awards.  That’s quite the impressive achievement for an actor previously unknown to the world.

Chastain first came to my attention through Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter, as a patient woman grown quickly wary of her husband’s increasing mental instability.  I took little notice of her through the first half of the film because my attention was focused on the strong performance by Michael Shannon.  But once she unleashed on her husband for making a critical mistake involving their daughter, I was suddenly aware of her powerful screen presence.  It was only after I reflected on the film that I realized Chastain’s role was trickier and more complex than even Shannon’s.

I saw her next in Malick’s haunting The Tree of Life.  As in Take Shelter, she plays a small-town woman married to an unstable man.  But there was something different in the performance this time, and I was better prepared to take notice.  Here is a mother deeply devoted to her children, determined that they don’t break under the pressure of a domineering father (Brad Pitt).  The scene where she physically assaults Pitt out of anger is sudden, ferocious and heartbreaking.  Another important moment in a very good film.

And what about The Help?  With a southern accent as thick as molasses and pants tight enough to crack walnuts, Chastain’s damaged Mississippi housewife is another remarkable detour of range.  I almost didn’t recognize her.  Affable and none too bright, her character Celia wants nothing more than to fit into society.  But the women of Jackson hate her, and none of the maids in town will work for her.  She finds a friend in Minny, another outsider, and the two women develop a touching friendship.  Chastain gets another powerhouse moment here, when Minny discovers just how deep Celia’s wounds run.

Three different films, three utterly unique performances.  A remarkable range.

I’ve been a film junkie most of my life; so ubiquitous is it to me, so always present, that I sometimes feel I take it for granted.  I’ve seen innumerable good films, nearly as many bad ones, and a few I would call great.  I’ve watched countless actors come and go, some with acclaim, most without.  But I can recall only one other actor who has made their presence so suddenly and completely known to the world:  Between 1978 and 1979, after having previously appeared in only a small handful of films, Meryl Streep co-starred in four major motion pictures, all to great critical acclaim.  Consider: The Deer Hunter, Manhattan, and Kramer vs. Kramer, for which she won an Oscar.  Before that, Holocaust and Julia.  The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Sophie’s Choice would follow shortly after, as would  another Academy Award.  Streep made it clear from the outset that she would choose the right roles and star in only the most serious films.

And so, it seems, has Chastain.  Now hold on.  Before you start trolling the comment board, please don’t think I’m comparing the most gifted actor of her generation with Jessica Chastain, because I’m not.  I’m comparing their early career trajectories.  The similarities do seem uncanny: two actors quickly emerge in memorable roles and a large number of serious films in a single year, all to acclaim; awards follow.  I point this out because I get a strange sense of deja vu, and frankly, it excites me in a way that film hasn’t done in some time.

Am I saying that Jessica Chastain drinks from the same well as Meryl Streep?  No, not yet.  But based on the performances I’ve seen so far this year, and the pedigree of the films yet released, I have a feeling I might soon be saying the opposite.