Jessica Chastain is on a roll
No actress can “disappear” into a role as proficiently as Meryl Streep does—after all, the prodigious 63-year-old icon isn’t Tinseltown’s greatest living actress for nothing. Jessica Chastain is also a thespic crackerjack, but this year’s Best Actress Oscar frontrunner (for “Zero Dark Thirty”) has been staking a claim to the Screen Queen crown for a couple of years now.
During last year’s awards season, she was Oscar-nominated for her delightful portrayal of a kind-hearted socialite in Tate Taylor’s Civil Rights comedy, “The Help.” But, the 35-year-old actress was just as hard to ignore in five (!) other films:
She was a Mossad agent torn between two lovers in John Madden’s harrowing spy thriller, “The Debt”; the supportive wife of a man who sees apocalyptic visions in Jeff Nichol’s end-of-the-world tale, “Take Shelter”; a nurturing mother in Terrence Malick’s existentialist drama, “Tree of Life”; the vengeful title character’s lovely wife in Ralph Fiennes’ “Coriolanus,” and a detective on the trail of a serial killer in “Texas Killing Fields.” —How versatile can you get?
Chastain doesn’t have Julia Roberts’ crowd-drawing clout just yet, but her recent projects have been racking up impressive numbers at the tills: “Madagascar 3,” in which she voiced the Italian jaguar Gia, was 2012’s second highest-grossing animated film—with a $743-million take!
Last month, the actress boosted her box-office cachet further when her horror starrer, “Mama,” debuted at the top of the box office. More impressively, the No. 2 movie that week was—“Zero Dark Thirty.” —When it rains, indeed!
In Andres Muschietti’s creepy drama, Chastain figures in another “vanishing” act. As Annabel, she’s almost unrecognizable as the tattoo-clad rocker wife of Lucas (Nicholas Coster-Waldau), who’s fighting for the custody of his nieces—8-year-old Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and her younger sister, Lilly (Isabelle Nelisse)—five years after they’re found living like wild animals in an abandoned cabin in the woods!
The sisters went missing after their distraught father, a victim of the 2008 financial crisis, attempted to kill them before committing suicide. How did they survive, and who’s this “Mama” they seem to adore—and fear?
When Lucas’ persistence lands him in the hospital, Annabel finds herself surprisingly drawn to the girls. But, someone—or something—seems displeased about the bond she forges with Victoria and Lilly!
Are ghouls just imaginary manifestations of man’s fears? As the sisters’ psychiatrist rationalizes, “A ghost is merely an emotion bent out of shape, condemned to repeat itself time and time again”—or, is it?
Muschietti presents his cautionary tale with an eerie flair for the macabre. The phantom-like creature that hovers over the film’s protagonists is genuinely terrifying—and the atmosphere of unease builds purposefully as we witness the missing pieces of the horrifying puzzle fall into place, one after the other!
Brilliantly unsentimental but movingly real, Chastain doesn’t succumb to the tired and trite conventions of the horror genre. She raises the stakes for her odd little family by letting Annabel’s “maternal” instinct develop organically.
So, when her character finally “connects” with one of the girls, you know that the relationship she establishes with her young ward isn’t technically calibrated to move the exposition to its requisite finale. —But, is her love enough to save them from the wrath of a jealous mother?!
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