Jessica Chastain might be the hardest-working woman in showbiz. She’s in a new movie — The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them — out this week, and she also just premiered Miss Julie at the Toronto Film Festival. She will be in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar in just a couple of months. Oh, and J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year in December. It’s strange to think that just three years ago, almost none of us knew who the heck Jessica Chastain was, and now she’s become a permanent fixture of the movie landscape, seeming to star (and give great performances) in films left and right.
Of course, the actress herself would be the first to tell you that some of this is an illusion: Because she’s acted for people like Terrence Malick and Christopher Nolan, who like to take their time releasing movies, she often winds up having films come out long, long after she’s shot them. (In fact, her allegedly incendiary performance in Al Pacino’s Salome, which first brought her to the notice of Hollywood’s A-list, still hasn’t been officially released.) But since she's got another big fall, we decided it's a good time to look over the films of Chastain’s career since 2008, when she appeared as the titular lead in the indie Jolene (which, true to form, wasn’t released until 2010, as her appearances in The Debt, The Help, and Tree of Life loomed). Just think: By this time next year, there might be six or seven more movies on this list.
12. Stolen Lives
This dour, muddled, barely released thriller features Jon Hamm investigating the unsolved murder of a young boy who died decades ago in an attempt to find out what happened to his own mysteriously disappeared son. Chastain, then an unknown, plays a smaller part as a kindly waitress who marries the father (Josh Lucas) of the disappeared boy in the flashbacks. She’s likable and has solid chemistry with Lucas, but that’s about it.
11. Tar (a.k.a. The Color of Time)
This is an odd film, to be sure: Directed by 12 different NYU students, it’s a stylized envisioning of the poet C.K. Williams’s life and work. (Williams himself is played by four different actors, including the film’s producer and the young directors’ teacher, one James Franco.) The movie is better than that description makes it sound, but Chastain plays Williams’s mother in segments that are way too derivative of Terrence Malick’s work — and Tree of Life in particular — to really make much of an impact.
In this underwhelming, violent drama about Prohibition-era moonshiners, Chastain plays a woman who fled the brutal anonymity of Chicago only to wind up in a gang war in Virginia. There’s some nice chemistry here between her and Tom Hardy, but her character is mostly relegated to the background in this aggressively macho tale.
9. Texas Killing Fields
Chastain does a solid turn (and masters a Texas accent) as a tough detective investigating a series of grisly murders alongside two other cops, one her ex, in Ami Caanan Mann’s grim procedural. But the film is more interested in mood and bits of authentic policework detail than it is in characters.
Playing a rocker chick who has to learn to love and mother her boyfriend’s feral nieces, especially after a demonic ghost from the beyond stakes a claim on them, Chastain is slightly miscast: She radiates a bit too much intelligence for the part of what appears, at first, to be a fairly careless character. But the film is still terrifying, so we can't fault her too much.
7. The Debt
In John Madden's intricate spy thriller, Chastain played the young version of a Mossad agent in the '60s who helped capture (along with fellow agents Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas) a notorious Nazi war criminal. The character is played by the great Helen Mirren in her later years, but Chastain had to do most of the heavy lifting here, not just as a tough, loyal spy, but also as a woman torn between two very different men.
As the wife of a heroic, entitled Roman soldier played by Ralph Fiennes, Chastain had a somewhat thankless part in this otherwise captivating adaptation of Shakespeare’s underperformed masterpiece. (The meatiest parts went to Fiennes, Gerard Butler, and an electrifying Vanessa Redgrave, playing Coriolanus’s give-as-good-as-she-gets mother Volumnia.) Still, she held her own in that cast of heavyweights, screaming some of the Bard’s most explosive poetry at us.
5. The Help
This 2011 hit about African-American servants and maids in 1960s Mississippi is full of ham-handed direction and blunt, on-the-nose writing. But it's incredibly well-acted, and Chastain shines as a simple, good-hearted southern housewife who hires a scandalized, presumably unemployable maid (Octavia Spencer) to help her cook and keep house unbeknownst to her wealthy husband. The actress was rewarded with her first Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for the role; she lost out to her cast mate Spencer.
Before anyone knew who she was, Chastain had to carry Dan Ireland’s episodic film (based on E.L. Doctorow’s novel Jolene: A Life) about a woman who suffers the tortures of the damned for years — encountering teenage marriage, abuse, prostitution, murder, and betrayal, losing everything, and then repeatedly attempting to rebuild her life. The film’s crazy melodrama doesn’t always work, but Chastain gives the part her all and then some — this was an early sign that she was headed for great things.
3. Take Shelter
Michael Shannon plays a working-class oilfield worker who begins to get premonitions of the apocalypse in Jeff Nichols's mesmerizing drama. But the real star of this show is Chastain, who, as the bewildered wife, has to run through a dizzying range of emotions in response to her husband’s increasingly haunted and desperate demeanor.
2. Tree of Life
You try embodying both a believable human being and Terrence Malick's idealized vision of cosmic grace. Playing the mother of a Texas family who faces love, loss, a disillusioned husband, the silence of God, the remorseless majesty of Creation, the end of all Being, and a (possible) heavenly ascension, Chastain somehow finds a way to keep her character grounded. Observe the contentment in her face as she watches her children at play, the sadness in her eyes when she sees them do wrong, the tension in her mouth at the dinner table. Malick’s overwhelming cinematic ambition might be the star here, but it’d be nothing without Jessica Chastain (and, let’s face it, her co-stars Brad Pitt and Hunter McCracken) there to make it all work.
1. Zero Dark Thirty
As the driven, focused, and refreshingly backstory-less CIA analyst relentlessly pursuing Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts over the course of a decade, Chastain holds together Kathryn Bigelow's masterful thriller. Some criticized the character for being cold. Rather, she's a person who starts off afraid to show emotions, and later learns to use her emotions as a weapon to get what she needs. She is, in other words, consumed by the single-mindedness of her pursuit. But the actress’s final scene might be the most heartbreaking one of her career.