This original idea for this piece was for me to catch up on and review the three Jessica Chastain performances that didn’t receive as much attention as her portrayals in The Help and Tree of Life. I got through The Debt well enough, but around the halfway point of Take Shelter a different angle occurred to me. It wasn’t until I finished with Coriolanus that the thesis solidified enough and I decided to roll with that.
First, allow me to give you a brief rundown of the five films that Jessica Chastain was featured in throughout the course of 2011:
The Help: In which she plays a hopelessly inept housewife (suffering) who takes the credit for the food and work of her housekeeper played by Octavia Spencer (In her Oscar-winning role.) I written about this film before: not my favorite.
Tree of Life: In which she plays a 1960’s housewife (suffering). A loving wife and mother whose philosophy on life are the crux of the film’s major themes and lie in stark contrast to the beliefs of her husband (played by Brad Pitt.)
Tangent #1: Once in a blue moon there comes a film that perplexes me so fully that I literally have to watch the film over and over again as a sort of punishment or half-assed attempt to understand it. Mulholland Drive was the last film in which this happened. Tree of Life definitely falls under this category. Needless to say, the brief synopsis is pure conjecture and I feel a little stupid even writing it.
Coriolanus: In which she plays the wife (suffering) of the title character (Ralph Fiennes) and most deal with the fact that her husband’s relationship with his mother is a wee bit (to put it lightly) inappropriate.
Tangent #2: I love Shakespeare. One summer, I obsessively read and in some cases reread every single one of his plays. While, I don’t think this is news to anyone, but it bears repeating: Coriolanus, along with Titus Andronicus, may be the toughest to get through.
Take Shelter: In which she plays the wife (suffering) of a man whose laden schizophrenia is slowly bubbling to the surface.
Tangent #3: Man, Michael Sheen is a fucking great actor. If Michael Fassbender not getting an Oscar nomination for “Shame” was the biggest snub of the year, Sheen’s performance in Take Shelter may be the second biggest.
The Debt: In which she plays the younger version of Helen Mirren, who plays a former Israeli Intelligence Agent who has been keeping a very big secret. Oh yeah, and she’s the long-suffering wife of a fellow Intelligence officer.
Tangent #4: I had higher hopes for this movie, given the cast and the pedigree of the filmmakers behind it (Bill Madden directing, a screenplay by Matthew Vaughn.) It’s a perfectly watchable thriller, however, at about the halfway mark of the film, I found myself manicuring my Amazon wish list (It’s compulsive… I hope I’m not alone.)
Wait for it…read it again…see the pattern.
This may seem like I’m the first guy to knock what has been an extraordinary year for the lady, but I’m not. In fact, it’s just opposite. Looking at the broad strokes, the similarities are certainly there, but what Chastain has done with every performance is simply remarkable. She is able with great subtlety and economy to mine the different shades of the human condition as it pertains to women. While she has essentially played the same role in all five films, she has ranged from electric exuberance to unflinching resolve to extreme pain. If watched in succession, it’s not entirely impossible to think of Chastain’s five performances as one large all-encompassing performance.
With so much heat around her, the possibilities are endless as are the paychecks. At this point, the fork in the road is upon her. Turn one direction and you go by way of Kate Hudson and make one dispensable romantic comedy after another until you whither away into obscurity and are only known for which rock star you are currently fucking. Turn the other direction and co tine to make interesting choices, win a couple of Oscars and transform into the second coming of Meryl Streep. Selfishly, I hope she chooses the latter. I realize that’s a high bar to set, but after a year like the one Ms. Chastain had, it’s hard not to see it coming. In 2011, Ms. Chastain may very well have painted her masterpiece, what will she do for an encore?