Jessica Chastain Against The World

MOLLY’S GAME and the elements of a filmography.

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A woman leans against a wall, her arms folded, her porcelain cheekbones and bold jawline catching the light as her eyes fill with defiance, tears, perhaps both at the same time. From beneath a cascade of pre-Raphaelite hair she stares in contemplation of, or directly at, the man who has disdained, disputed, disrespected or just plain disappointed her. You know little about her inner life, her friends, her past, but know with certainty her ambitions and desires, her vulnerabilities, her refusal to take any crap. You’re watching a Jessica Chastain Movie.

There’s a clear through-line in Jessica Chastain’s filmography: she plays strong but no less feminine women, sensual but never hyper-sexualised, self-assured and independent, equally demonstrative of their emotions and their intellect. These aren’t characters transformed by their experiences in a conventional narrative arc, but women propelled by their own agency and tested by circumstance, the outcome more often ambiguous and taxing than a clear-cut victory. Occupying a cinematic space between the indie and the blockbuster, they’re character dramas and Jessica Chastain is their star, her face central to their marketing and box-office appeal.

Many of the Jessica Chastain Movie pieces fall into place in her first starring role, 2008’s Jolene. This adaptation of a short story inspired by the Dolly Parton song is an acting showcase as Chastain’s titular character (the first of many) progresses from naive, impulsive 15-year-old through 10 years of unerringly poor life choices on the way to becoming wiser, battered yet unbowed, supporting herself through her art and dreaming of becoming a Hollywood star. Innocent, lover, punk, stripper, mother, each chapter opens a different aspect of the character which Chastain portrays with utter conviction, but can also be read as a manifesto of sorts, an indication of characters she would later pursue.

Despite appearing in four films released in 2011, it wouldn’t be until 2012 that Chastain appeared in another outright starring role, and Zero Dark Thirty is the definitive Jessica Chastain Movie, iconic in its shot of Chastain staring into an Afghani sunset through a pair of Aviators. “It’s her against the world,” says one superior of Maya, Chastain’s fictionalised CIA operative who tracks down Osama bin Laden, her persistence continually bringing her up against intransigent politicking which she overcomes using intelligence and determination rather than her femininity, the film bucking convention by refusing to give her a romantic subplot, defining her in terms of a male character, or exempting her from its brutality.

Following the feminist theme is Chastain’s eponymous role in the 2014 period adaptation of Miss Julie, charting an aristocrat daughter’s descent into the servant’s quarters and madness as she tests the shackles of patriarchal society. While not the most commercial of projects, let alone an Oscar-chasing Hollywood prestige picture, Miss Julie is a film made for the love of words, drama and the craft of storytelling through acting, and another opportunity for Chastain to work with a female director.

That focus on drama also makes the Jessica Chastain Movie affordable: 2016’s Miss Sloane was budgeted at just $13m, complex and expensive visual effects not necessary in a movie anchored by a powerhouse performance from Chastain as she delivers mile-a-minute monologues in honeyed Beltway tones. A knotty procedural of Washington lobbying, the movie is quite literally about a woman fighting old white men of the political establishment who continually underestimate her as they attempt to entrap, outwit and slut-shame her before she secures victory on her own terms by playing just as dirtily as they do, always remaining one step ahead. The stakes of the story are gun legislation, and this refusal to avoid weighty topics in her work, such as torture, domestic violence, Israeli special operations, suicide, corruption and racial prejudice parallel Chastain’s personal advocacy and activism.

In recent years she’s been outspoken on matters of diversity within the film industry both behind and in front of the camera, notably in a speech at the Critic’s Choice Awards in 2015 and writing from the set of The Zookeeper's Wife about the different atmosphere she experienced in a crew including more women – not a majority or even an equality, but more than usual – and subsequently she’s become involved in production companies which specifically seek to promote female voices and stories.

Chastain’s also been forthcoming throughout 2017’s reckoning with the entertainment industry’s male power base and the abuses it has facilitated, talking of her refusal to accept unequal pay, her dismay at the representation of women in the Cannes line-up, relating her own dealings with Harvey Weinstein, affirming accusations made against Brett Ratner, and most recently cementing her place among the industry’s most vocal feminists with her involvement in the Time’s Up initiative.

Those same issues are at the heart of Molly’s Game, a directorial debut for Aaron Sorkin which is no less a Jessica Chastain Movie. You’ve seen her front and centre on the posters serving eyeshadow and attitude, and yes, she folds her arms while contemplating men who disappoint and betray her, she takes no crap as she defends her integrity, and we never see the friend whose couch she crashes on. Disappearing under chestnut hair, spray-on tan and bodycon dresses, Chastain’s fictionalised Molly Bloom deals with men who fail to understand her even as they profess their love for her, graciously if bemusedly accepting a misguided apology for the wrongs they do her and, by extension, all women.

Throughout Chastain’s career, even those movies in which hers is not the central character, she plays these independent, modern, but no less imperfect women. As she recently said, “We’ve just gotten used to seeing women as plot devices or props to push the male story forward. So I look for scripts with women who have an inner life and their own goals and objectives. People say, 'Oh, she’s so strong', but she’s just a realistic character.”

It’s as simple as that: all these recurring themes and motifs emerge from deliberate choices made by a chameleonic, iconic actor seeking out and bringing to life realistic characters, the foundation of the Jessica Chastain Movie.

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