In the new drama Miss Sloan, Jessica Chastain gives one of 2016’s most fearsome lead performances as a D.C. lobbyist determined to take down her former firm in a battle over a controversial gun-regulation bill. Under the steady stewardship of director John Madden, Chastain delivers a magnetic movie-star turn that keeps the material on track even when it hits some far-fetched pot holes, and it could launch her into next year’s Best Actress Oscar race. It’s not, however, a surprise to find Chastain reconfirming her status as one of cinema’s most formidable actresses. Even at the young age of 39, her résumé is as impressive as any in Hollywood. In celebration of her work in Miss Sloane, we look at back at five of her previous triumphs.
5. Mama (2013)
Chastain goes goth to compelling effect in this supernatural horror movie. Sporting severe black hair and arm tattoos, she plays a punk-rock bassist who winds up as the foster mother for two haunted girls who’ve been found in a forest cabin where they’ve lived, alone, for years. Eventually left to care for the children by herself — a situation complicated by the fact that they have a relationship with a supernatural being known as “Mama” — the actress evokes her don’t-tread-on-me character’s slow maternal development with understated grace. She’s the dramatic calm in the material’s eventual paranormal storm.
4. Crimson Peak (2015)
Director Guillermo Del Toro’s gothic romance concerns a young American (Mia Wasikowska) who marries an Englishman (Tom Hiddleston) and moves to his gone-to-seed family estate, where he lives with his imperious sister (Jessica Chastain). What follows are horrifying revelations regarding long-buried secrets. It’s Chastain’s mysterious, menacing sibling — equally desperate, vengeful and insane — that truly breaths life into this supernatural saga. That’s most true during a memorable sequence in which she feeds Wasikowska’s heroine porridge in bed, her every calculated word and gesture laced with unnerving malevolence.
3. Miss Julie (2014)
Ingmar Bergman’s favorite leading lady Liv Ullmann directed this criminally under-seen 2014 adaptation of August Strindberg’s 1888 play. Chastain stars as a wealthy count’s daughter, who, over the course of a night, tries to seduce her valet (Colin Farrell). Confined to only a few locations, the film is a taut, twisted portrait of class and sexual warfare. Chastain’s performance most ably stands out for its bold, fevered intensity — it’s the work of an actress capable of nuance even when playing material to the hilt.
2. The Tree of Life (2011)
Chastain’s breakthrough performance (which she hasn’t watched since, because the process was “so emotional”) came opposite Brad Pitt in Terrence Malick’s 2011 masterpiece The Tree of Life, as the mother of three young boys growing up in a southern suburb. Cast as the light, nurturing force in her children’s lives — contrasted with Pitt’s more turbulent, demanding father and husband — Chastain is a figure of both symbolic heft and three-dimensional humanity. That she manages to fulfill both duties with equal skill speaks to her greatness as an actress, and helps root Malick’s grand, era-spanning drama in complex, intimate emotion.
1. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Director Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to her Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker earned Chastain a Best Actress nomination, despite the political controversy that swirled around the project. Playing a CIA analyst determined to bring Osama bin Laden to justice, Chastain exudes a ferocity far removed from her Tree of Life turn. Whether her character is overseeing the brutal “enhanced interrogation” of captured terror suspects or sparring with superiors about her role in the international manhunt, Chastain is the charismatic center of Bigelow’s hot-button geopolitical thriller.