From Zero Dark Thirty (2012) to Scenes from a Marriage (2021), here’s a look at the best Jessica Chastain movies.
Jessica Michelle Chastain was born on March 24, 1977 in Sacramento, California. She grew up in a middle-class family and shared a close bond with her maternal grandmother, Marilyn. Jessica Chastain mentions in an interview that both her grandmother and mother had their first child at the age of 17; she talks about how women back then didn’t have access to birth control or healthcare, or how they didn’t have a lot of choices. Chastain, from a young age, was clear about making the right choices and pursuing her interest.
She enjoyed dancing and by the age of 13, was part of a dance troupe. However, she didn’t do well in school. But she developed an interest in Shakespeare. This led Chastain to perform in many amateur Shakespearean productions. Subsequently, she went to Juilliard performing arts school in NYC as a drama major, and won the Robin Williams scholarship. While going to Juilliard she performed in theater and also did small roles in TV productions. Jessica Chastain made her feature-film debut in Jolene (2008).
2011 became the greatest year in Chastain’s career since her films, Tree of Life and Take Shelter won top prizes at Cannes. In the same year she nabbed her first Oscar nomination for the strong supporting role in The Help. From then on, Jessica Chastain frequently took up lead roles and often played strong-willed women. She has also efficiently played the role of producer. From The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby to The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Chastain has served as a producer in films she played the lead role.
The actor identifies herself as a feminist and has addressed many social issues. She is a vocal advocate for equal pay in the workplace, and has often campaigned for women’s access to affordable reproductive healthcare. She is one of the few celebrities who refused to work in American states that implemented abortion bans.
Without further ado, here are the best Jessica Chastain movies.
14. Jolene (2008)
Dan Ireland’s teen road-movie marks the big-screen debut of Jessica Chastain. After playing some minor roles in TV series for four years, Chastain landed the titular role of a 15-year old orphaned girl. Jessica Chastain was 31 when she played Jolene. Yet the actress brings a certain tenderness and magnetic charisma to the role which makes us believe Chastain as the insecure and lonely Jolene. The film is based on a short story by E.L. Doctorow.
Jolene has grown up in a series of abusive foster homes. At 15, in order to escape the foster home life, she marries a dull yet earnest car mechanic. The newlyweds move into the home of the husband’s uncle, Phil. Phil and Jolene have a secret affair. When this comes to light, Phil is thrown into jail and Jolene ends up in a home for ‘troubled girls’. The story gets more convoluted from here as Jolene has more transitory relationships which gradually destabilize her. The film wasn’t written or directed well. Yet it’s watchable for Chastain’s vibrant screen presence.
13. Interstellar (2014)
In Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic Interstellar, Jessica Chastain shares her character Murph with two actresses. The younger version is played by MacKenzie Foy and the older by the magnificent Ellen Burstyn, though Chastain’s Murph is the story’s great emotional anchor. She perfectly carries forward the heartache and feelings of uncertainty of the adolescent Murph. Yet Chastain’s Murph retains hope and comes across as a woman of action. She takes pivotal steps that perfectly complement the protagonist’s long journey to save humanity.
Chastain’s Murph is so angry about losing her father. Besides, she resents him for his lies. The actress’ performance in the scene where Murph sends a birthday message to her father and tearfully addresses her feelings of abandonment brilliantly strengthens the narrative’s emotional core. Despite the impending sense of loss, Murph’s connection with her dad is so strong that she involves herself in the fight for humanity. Nolan is dissed for not conceiving emotionally resonant characters. But his writing and Jessica Chastain’s portrayal of Murph make up for it.
12. Miss Julie (2014)
Miss Julie was renowned Swedish actress’ Liv Ullmann’s fourth directorial venture and her first English film. She returned to directing after her critically acclaimed 2000 drama Faithless. The film is based on the 1888 Swedish play of the same name by August Strindberg. Ullmann transplants the narrative to 19th century Ireland. It’s a love triangle that unfolds in a very large and empty manor. Colin Farrell, Jessica Chastain, and Samantha Morton are the principal players of the narrative. Chastain plays the title character — a beautiful, furious and yet deeply insecure upper class woman. Julie’s scandalous engagements with men and her diatribes are the primary focus of the narrative.
The film suffers due to a weak script that fails to engage us emotionally. However, the three seasoned performers, especially Chastain, perfectly carry the film on their shoulders. There are times when the scenarios get overly emotional. But Chastain’s performance brings a certain restraint to the scenes. The long argument between Farrell and Chastain’s character in the kitchen is mesmerizing to watch.
11. The Help (2011)
Based on Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel of the same name, Tate Taylor’s The Help looks at the racism of 1960s USA from the perspective of an African-American maid. Though it was a critical and commercial success, the story’s problematic aspects have been discussed at length. The most regretful aspect of the narrative is that it focuses too much on the white women. Even Viola Davis who played the central role emphasized this and mentioned Help as one of the films she regretted doing.
However, the female-centric, crowd-pleasing elements of the narrative worked for those getting initiated into the American 1960s Civil Rights struggle. Jessica Chastain’s character Celia Rae Foote is clearly one of the reasons it left an impact on mainstream moviegoers. She is initially introduced as a good-natured blonde. But the writing brings more shades to the character, and Chastain’s sure-footed performance realizes such complexities. Chastain is particularly brilliant in her interactions with Viola Davis’ central character, Minny. Celia’s bond with Minny is one of the most heart-warming and humorous episodes of the narrative.
10. Molly’s Game (2017)
Molly’s Game is the directorial debut of gifted and acclaimed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. The film tells the true story of gambling entrepreneur and one-time Olympic hopeful Molly Bloom. Jessica Chastain in the titular role meticulously navigates her way through Sorkin’s signature bursts of complex dialogue. The narrative tracks down how Molly found her way into the high-stakes world of private poker games. Money and the victory gradually addict Molly and she eventually becomes a fixer for hedge fund managers and celebrities. Sleeplessness and dependency on drugs further leads to lapses in judgment and Molly is faced with federal racketeering charges.
Jessica Chastain’s Molly Bloom is a headstrong and independent woman with a tough exterior. At times, Sorkin’s style of conversations comes across as a bit overbearing. Memorable one-liners and witty repartees can’t make up for vainly explored characters. Maybe the real Molly was impenetrable and only showcased herself as a woman with great power. It’s definitely an entertaining performance, particularly Chastain’s scenes with Idris Elba. But not very challenging for an actress of her caliber.
9. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her (2013)
Ned Benson’s romantic drama is an intriguing meditation on the shared emotion of love. The three-hour long film consists of two halves: Him and Her. Him sets up the tale of mad love between restaurant owner Connor Ludlow (James McAvoy) and his wife, Eleanor Rigby. Him is told from Connor’s perspective as the couple try to endure a horrible tragedy. And one day, Eleanor walks out on Connor. Her adds more complex perspectives to their love relationship and eventual rift, as Eleanor attempts to reclaim her life.
Both McAvoy and Chastain share an excellent chemistry. The ebbs and flows of their characters’ relationship is one of the most convincing on-screen portrayals of heterosexual couples. Chastain is absolutely phenomenal in the way she depicts varying emotions, from compassion to anger and depression, without overselling any single moment. Overall, Benson’s interesting examination of memory and subjectivity wouldn’t have worked if not for Chastain’s hypnotizing performance.
8. The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)
If you’re familiar with the Holocaust, you’re well aware of the horrors and atrocities of Nazi rule. Niki Caro’s heartbreaking as well as hopeful drama showcases the Nazi cruelty against zoo animals, and one selfless heroine’s resistance against the inhumanity. Jessica Chastain plays Antonina, a compassionate caretaker of the animals at the Warsaw Zoo. The year is 1939, and chaos ensues as Nazi Germany invades Poland. Daniel Bruhl plays the Nazi Zoologist, under whose command the zoo is placed.
Antonina and her husband Jan, despite the watchful eyes of the Nazis, smuggled Jewish people out of the Warsaw ghetto. They rescued hundreds of people in a smart yet dangerous operation. Though an English language film, the actors try to speak with a Polish accent. Such dialogue delivery brings certain artifice to the proceedings. But Chastain’s performance, irrespective of the accent, is unbelievably nuanced. She effortlessly conveys a wide range of emotions one experiences under tough circumstances. She is particularly remarkable in the scene where her character tries to save a newborn elephant.
7. Take Shelter (2011)
Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter is a spectacular spine-chilling arthouse drama on an individual’s anxieties about the modern world. Michael Shannon plays Curtis, a family man and a dedicated blue-collar worker. Nightmares and visions of the apocalypse gradually destabilize Curtis’ personal and professional life. Fearing an apocalyptic storm, Curtis starts building a shelter in his backyard and becomes obsessed with it. At the same time, he is unable to process the burden it is putting on his family. Jessica Chastain plays Curtis’ resilient and loving wife, Samantha.
The self-restraint and calmness Chastain exhibits as Samantha remains as the antithesis to Curtis’ increasingly erratic behavior. Chastain’s character is neither mawkish nor overtly sympathetic. Samantha is the ever-understanding wife, but Nichols and Chastain equally well bring out her vulnerabilities. Chastain doesn’t have many dialogues. She largely conveys her sufferings and determination through her powerful eyes. I particularly loved the scenes that detail the mundane facets of Curtis and Samantha’s married life, and how Chastain’s Samantha carries herself without showing a sense of resignation.
6. A Most Violent Year (2014)
J.C. Chandor’s complex crime drama is set in 1981 New York City. It revolves around up and coming businessman Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac). The slick-haired Abel, swathed in double-breasted suits dreams of rapidly expanding his fuel company. However, he is faced with many crises that include legal, financial, and personal. Jessica Chastain plays Anna, Abel’s wife and the mother of his two girls. Anna is a street-smart woman who also does bookkeeping for her husband’s firm. Besides, Anna and her family are connected with the mob. She always insists Abel to seek their help when things don’t go their way.
Jessica Chastain is a chameleonic performer proving herself in a role significantly different from what she’s previously done. Her Anna constantly makes us feel that there is something terrifying about her nature that we aren’t totally aware of. Chastain’s compelling performance makes us wonder where Anna’s unpredictability will take the narrative. Besides, her chemistry with Oscar Isaac is absolutely spellbinding.
5. The Tree of Life (2011)
Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life is often described as a symphony film. It’s because Mr. Malick isn’t trying to tell a story, but pushing us to feel certain emotions. Tree of Life is a poetic and fragmented tale of a middle-aged man, reminiscing about his childhood and the turbulent relationship with his father. Brad Pitt plays the stern and physically abusive father and Jessica Chastain plays the loving mother. One could say Chastain’s character provides a core to the disjointed, deeply introspective narrative.
Though the mother character in the narrative is a projection of the boy’s mind, Chastain brilliantly grounds the character, since the bond and love she shares with her boys feels very real. It is to Chastain’s credit that her scenes don’t come across as a snapshot of a buried memory. Moreover, Chastain mentions in the interviews that she tried to cultivate that quality after going through Malick’s script. Chastain says that she studied paintings, practiced meditation, and other related things to deeply understand the character’s maternal instincts rather than simply playing an idea of her.
4. Scenes from a Marriage (2021)
In 1973, Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman ventured into a television project, and it was greatly received. The six-episode miniseries was edited and released as a feature-length film too. Scenes from a Marriage was considered as one of the most profound works of Bergman. It’s an engrossing study of a married relationship, capturing its different phases. HBO attempted to remake the classic Bergman series for the modern era. What was particularly powerful about the original was Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson’s performances.
Though the modern remake fumbles on many counts, it gets the casting right. Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac are phenomenal as Mira and Jonathan. The pair’s crackling chemistry in A Most Violent Year made us want to see more of them together. Creator Hagai Levi switches the gender from the original, in relation to the conflict. Therefore, Chastain’s Mira initially comes across as the more complex character of the two. The pair is excellent, be it their bitter squabbles or when amending damages. Yet, against Bergman’s towering masterpiece, the remake comes across as mediocre.
3. The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021)
Jessica Chastain won her first Academy Award for her knockout performance as the controversial and rambunctious televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker. Andrew Garfield plays Tammy’s crooked husband Jim Bakker. Both the actors are transformed – thanks to make-up and prosthetics – to resemble their real-life counterparts. Chastain strongly believed in the material and became one of the movie’s producers.
Director Michael Showalter goes for a very balanced approach with the biopic, as he showcases Tammy’s flaws while also humanizing her in the process. The narrative unfolds over different decades, beginning in the 1960s with the scripture-quoting young-adult Tammy. It chronicles Tammy and Jim’s rise to fame in the 70 and 80s, and their fall after the major scandal in 1988.
At the outset, Tammy Faye comes across as a bubbly, cartoonish figure. But Jessica Chastain brings a surprising amount of depth to the character. Despite disappearing under layers of make-up, Chastain keeps digging deeper into Tammy’s complexities, particularly her troubled relationship with the mother. The actress also trained herself a lot to capture the real Tammy’s mannerisms and vocal cadence.
2. Miss Sloane (2016)
In John Madden’s engaging political drama, Jessica Chastain plays Elizabeth Sloane, the most sought-out political lobbyist in Washington D.C. She is courted by the gun lobby in order to prevent a bill on firearms regulations that’s going to be passed in the Congress. But she rejects the proposition of the powerful men and intriguingly joins the rival firm that’s supporting the bill. It’s not because of her political stance. Sloane simply likes the challenge. At the same time, Sloane’s unconventional methods and activities lead to a Senate hearing.
Madden’s Miss Sloane takes a lot of cinematic turns and ends on a melodramatic note. But it’s absolutely watchable for Chastain’s fiery performance. Chastain’s Sloane is the queen in the high-stakes world of political power-brokers. But there’s relentless pressure on her to perform. She struggles to find time for her personal life or forge any genuine emotional connection with people. Such complexities and conflicts within Sloane are immaculately laid out by Chastain. The climax is far-fetched and fantastical, but Chastain’s impressive acting perfectly sells us the improbable.
1. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty chronicles the path that led the CIA to the discovery and killing of Osama Bin Laden. Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a rookie CIA agent recruited straight from the university. She is assigned to a black site in Pakistan, and is mentored by the intelligent and ruthless interrogator, Dan (Jason Clarke). Bigelow and her screenwriter Mark Boal keep the goings on real and grounded. The high drama gradually unfolds, but for the large part you witness the mundane process that goes into surveillance and interrogation.
Bigelow and Chastain deliberately keep Maya a mysterious figure. We don’t learn much about her and are not supposed to care about her. Chastain rather emphasizes Maya‘s single-minded determination to prove herself in a man’s world. Maya also works in a world where bonding is dangerous. A little personal expression can be used against her. Though there isn’t a strong emotional connection between the viewer and Chastain’s Maya, it is simply fascinating to observe her at work. And there’s a memorable and powerful final shot with Chastain’s Maya which eventually exhibits the inherent sadness of the character.
Jessica Chastain has been firmly in the spotlight for the last decade. Like her peers Michelle Williams and Marion Cotillard, Chastain also does simple roles in blockbuster cinema like The Martian (2015), X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019), and IT Chapter Two (2019). At the same time, Chastain has been quietly laying the groundwork for the roles she desires to do. She is currently doing three films. One is Tobias Lindholm’s crime drama The Good Nurse. It’s about the New Jersey serial-killer Charles Cullen. She’s part of post-apocalypse action thriller The Division, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. And then Chastain is producing and acting in Mothers’ Instinct, a drama based on Barbara Abel’s novel.
An ardent cinephile, who truly believes in the transformative power and shared-dream experience of cinema. He blogs at ‘Passion for Movies.’