5. The Help (2011)
2011 was Jessica Chastain’s breakthrough year, but The Help was her breakthrough performance. Sure, there were movies that came along before The Help, but none were as commercially successful. The Tree of Life was too weird, Take Shelter couldn’t secure a wide release, and Coriolanus simply didn’t feature enough of the actress. The Help was the movie that put her on the map.
With a box office haul of over $200 million and a slew of Oscar nominations, this movie was too big to ignore. If we’re being honest, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer definitely earned more attention for their roles. However, they had years of experience behind them. Chastain had a few past roles here and there, but she felt like a fresh face with oodles of potential talent.
Those that had labeled Chastain as a future acting powerhouse were correct. This was just the tip of the iceberg, but it was a splendid role to earn her this well deserved attention. The kind-hearted socialite she plays is equal parts admirable and groan inducing. Her naivety is frustrating, but it’s part of what gives her character so much depth. Chastain keeps track of all the characters quirks throughout the movie and embodies them effortlessly. Her performance is transformative.
She went on to pick up several award nominations, and rightfully so. Though she mostly ended up losing to her costar, this was just the beginning of a long career. From standout lead performances to scene-stealing supporting roles, Chastain has continued to grow since this breakthrough performance.
Though she has definitely outdone herself in subsequent performances, this is still one of her greatest accomplishments. After all, it helped pave the way for a long period of non-stop success.
4. Take Shelter (2011)
Jeff Nichols has a knack for creating poetic southern gothic masterpieces, and Take Shelter is no exception. With a daring script and countless timeless themes, you’ll be left breathless by the time everything is said and done. There’s so much about Take Shelter that deserves heaps of praise, but let’s not forget about the high quality cast. As wonderful as Michael Shannon is, this is a Jessica Chastain article. As such, her performance in the film has earned her a spot on the list for a reason.
Chastain plays the determined wife of a man who continues to have strange apocalyptic visions. While he breaks down as a result of these visions, her character stays strong and almost hopeful. She’s the brave backbone the family needs to survive the psychological downfall of the protagonist. When all hope seems lost, she finds a way to assemble the broken pieces. This spunky attitude is what makes her character so charming.
The character is well written, but it’s Chastain who does most of the hard work. A flat performance courtesy of an inexperienced actress would do this character no justice. She needed to be played by someone who could bring out the subtle details. Jessica Chastain does a masterful job. It’s not just the character that should be applauded; it’s also the actress.
3. Miss Sloane (2016)
There’s plenty of political intrigue to be found in John Madden’s latest thriller, but do you know what’s even cooler? Jessica freakin’ Chastain. Her role as a fast talking lobbyist who will do anything to get the job done stands tall as one of her most monumental achievements. Perera’s script is strong enough on its own merits, but our leading lady spits the well-written dialog with necessary venom. Chastain isn’t playing nice this time around, and that’s well worth observing.
There are few things more appealing than watching a critically acclaimed actor or actress play a role in a political thriller. Political films are well known for their rapid-fire dialog and passionate characters. Chastain brings new meaning to the word passion.
The hot-blooded titular character is the kind of female badass audiences don’t regularly recognize. She’s a different breed of awesome than someone like Katniss Everdeen or Wonder Woman. Her fervent dedication to her career is made evident by Chastain’s own enthusiasm. The character and the actress are a match made in heaven.
Frankly, the supporting cast can’t keep up. Luckily, this is a movie that keeps the camera squarely on the protagonist. Viewers will spend a lot of time with Elizabeth Sloane. Thankfully, you’ll grow to love this character within the first few minutes. Chastain’s very first line of dialog gushes with gusto. She continues to impress all the way until the credits roll.
2. The Tree of Life (2011)
There’s not a whole lot of dialog to be found in Terrence Malick’s introspective tour de force. The arthouse epic asks a lot of questions about family, growing up, and religion. It spends so much time doing so that it might be hard for viewers to appreciate the subtle intricacies of the lead performances. Viewers aren’t going to get the more boisterous performances found in ensemble movies like The Help. Rather, it’s the quiet blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments that should hit home.
Simply put, if you’re looking for a more heavy handed performance with screaming, crying, and plenty of dialog, this isn’t the movie for you. There’s a reason Chastain’s performance in The Help got the Oscar nomination; it’s louder and more in-your-face. Don’t let that fool you though.
The fact that she’s able to express so much while saying so little in The Tree of Life is a testament to her skill as an actress. Her understated changes in body language and facial expressions make a world of difference in a movie that refuses to hold the viewer’s hand. The good-natured matriarch contrasts well with the more assertive father played by Brad Pitt. We hardly need proof that Chastain plays well with others, but this is one of many examples.
The Tree of Life isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. The experimental approach to storytelling will be labeled pretentious or jarring. The good news is that even if you’re not a fan of the arthouse approach, you should still be able to find value in the roles played by the cast members. In particular, Chastain’s quiet but effective performance elevates the film in ways audience’s couldn’t possibly imagine.
1. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
If you only have the opportunity to see one Jessica Chastain movie in your lifetime, make sure it’s this one. For one, it’s a phenomenal film thanks to Kathryn Bigelow’s strong direction and Mark Boal’s hard-hitting script. More importantly, Jessica Chastain delivers one of the best performances of the decade.
The emotionally engaging role gives us a character who is strong-willed, independent, and consistently worthy of admiration. Maya is a well rounded character made infinitely more fascinating as a result of who plays her.
Chastain gives us a character who is confident about her mission. She’s not tough in the traditional sense. Rather, her courage comes as a result of her intellect and perseverance. There has been a lot of talk lately about the lack of strong female protagonists in movies.
While Maya’s character doesn’t automatically fix the lack of female representation in the media, it shows that writers, directors, and actresses are capable of collaborating and showing viewers a woman worthy of admiration. Maya is one hell of a role model through and through.
If The Help put Jessica Chastain on the map, Zero Dark Thirty solidified her status as a major talent. There’s a lot to love in Bigelow’s dramatic epic, but Chastain may very well be the standout. Without her, it’s hard to imagine anyone having the same engrossing experience. You may go for the interesting story, but you’ll stay for the leading lady.
Author Bio: Justin is a paraprofessional teaching assistant and full-time film enthusiast with a degree in English. When he’s not writing about films, he’s probably watching them in his spare time.