Denouement: The Wonder of Discovering Jessica Chastain

Like a lot of you, I suspect, I had never seen Jessica Chastain before this year. (I missed "Jolene," her film debut, which came out in 2008.) I first heard her name as the other person, the female lead opposite Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, back when the first rumblings of Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" began to surface. But I never gave her much thought. Actresses like this come and go every year. It can be difficult to keep track of them all.

And then we saw all three movies she's in this year: "The Tree of Life," "The Help" and "The Debt," which opens today. (I gave it a positive review earlier this week.) And I understood, with a start, why Jessica Chastain was suddenly everywhere. She's terrific.

Her roles in all three films couldn't be more different. A deified, almost angelic mother in "The Tree of Life." A hard-nosed, fierce Mossad agent in "The Debt." A blowsy, good-hearted, trashy country girl in "The Help." It's a wonder anyone even thought to put her in all three movies, in such disparate parts; even more amazing is that she's a standout in all three. My favorite performance of hers is probably "The Help," because it's a potentially thankless role that she elevates into almost the moral center of the film: She's funny and warm and, in her own way, deeply principled like no other white character in the film is. While everyone else is talking about change and making a difference -- or actively trying to oppose it -- Chastain's Celia Foote actually goes about living her life the right way and doesn't think too much about it. It's a bravura performance, the best in a film full of them.

I haven't seen "Take Shelter," the well-regarded drama with Chastain and Michael Shannon coming out this fall, but now I'm looking forward to it more for her than for him. Which is what makes me start to get a little worried. These little career boomlets happen all the time -- last year it was Shannon, actually -- but inevitably they come with a high-profile fizzle and then we're on to the next person. This is a particular hazard with actresses, who have far less margin for error. They come and go before you realize they were here. Off the top of my head, from the past few years: Olivia Munn, Olivia Wilde, Olga Kurylenko, Malin Akerman, Emily Browning, Brie Larson, Abbie Cornish ... I could honestly keep going for a long time. Chastain's a better actress than all of them, but she's also older than they are, already 30 in a business that chews through actresses like cocaine. (This metaphor pretends that people chew cocaine. Cocaine is not, in fact, chewed.) Chastain is two months older than Natalie Portman. She's gonna get only this one shot.

And Chastain is taking advantage: She's everywhere over the next year, from Al Pacino's "Wilde Salome" to "Texas Killing Fields" (with "The Debt" co-star Sam Worthington) to Depression-era crime thriller "The Wettest County in the World" (with Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman and Shia LeBeouf) to Malick's next movie. But she also might be the new Tom Cruise girl. I do hope she chooses wisely. I think Jessica Chastain is the most exciting actress working right now, and I've only seen her in three movies. It's very possible this post will look ridiculous in two years, when Chastain is doing guest spots on Showtime hour-long dramas. The time to pounce is now, and she must make every decision exactly right. The odds are against her, but man, I'm rooting hard. It's thrilling to discover a serious new talent. It makes you feel smart. It makes you into a fan. Movies are so much more fun when you have someone to root for.