Red Headed Stranger: Jolene, Jessica Chastain's Feature Film Debut
Jessica Chastain has come a long way since her film debut eight years ago.
Before hitting the big screen, she began working professionally in 2004, going from the stage to TV, appearing on episodes of ER, Veronica Mars and Law & Order. From there, she appeared in a handful of film rules before making it big in 2011 with Take Shelter, The Tree of Life and The Help. She appeared in 10 films over 2011 and 2012, receiving two Oscar nominations in that timespan for The Help and Zero Dark Thirty. She has not let up since then. There’s a reason why directors like Jeff Nichols, Terrence Malick, Kathryn Bigelow, Christopher Nolan, Ridley Scott and Guillermo del Toro are drawn to and want to work with her. By looking at her output alone, it's clear she’s currently one of the most hard-working actresses. Looking through her individual performances, she stands out as one of the most versatile, as well.
Chastain is, without question, my favorite performer working today. There’s a presence to her that’s almost indescribable; a classical look thanks to her striking features (red hair, yes), shades of Rita Hayworth are present. Add to that, her hard-nose dedication to the performances one can also see in her contemporaries, like Michael Shannon. From a dark haired gothic villain to a ruthless businesswoman, an astronaut to a warring archer; Chastain has run the gamut of characters through her career. In her latest role in Miss Sloane, she plays a lobbyist turning her sights on gun control. She reunites with director John Madden, who cast her in one of her early roles in The Debt. In leading roles, Chastain has the perfect amount of charisma to carry a film; having seen it, I can confirm this trend continues in Miss Sloane. The plot is perhaps too heavy with political machinations, but it’s Chastain performance that electrifies the proceedings. We only need to look back to Chastain’s first film to witness her ability to be the guiding light of any production.
The 2008 independent film Jolene stars Chastain in her feature film debut. We first see Jolene as a bride at 15-years-old. After that we see the next 10 years of her life, going from ill-advised love affair to ill-advised love affair. Chastain is exceedingly well-cast as Jolene. The story may be overly wrought and at times painfully melodramatic, but there is no better role to showcase Chastain’s skills as an actress in her feature debut.
In the first of five relationship-centric chapters in the film, 15-year-old Jolene marries a 20-year-old and quickly becomes unsatisfied. She cheats on him with his uncle Phil (Dermot Mulroney) and the two begin an affair. This early on, the film makes some missteps in tone. The first sexual encounter between Jolene and Phil is set to “Shake Your Booty” by KC and the Sunshine Gang. Unfortunate creative decisions aside, what the film manages to pull out of Chastain in this first chapter is a wide-eyed innocence with ever-flowing hope, all with an undercurrent of dangerous sexuality. In physical appearance, Jolene begins wide-eyed, smiling and in pigtails. Chastain convincingly transforms herself from teenage to grown woman, covering a decade in a life. She was committed to slimming down for later chapters that she drank only lemon water for a long period, which made her ill by the end of the shoot.
In the second chapter, she finds herself in a juvenile psych ward, where a nurse, Cindy (Frances Fisher), seduces her and helps her escape. It’s in a quiet scene between Jolene and Cindy in this chapter that peels back a layer of the Jolene character and of Chastain herself. Cindy looks at Jolene and comments on her freckles saying, “They give your skin little dots of sunlight.” It’s a statement on the idolization that each of Jolene’s lovers adheres to, an unbridled obsession that she accepts mostly to her detriment. That line also plays to Chastain’s signature beauty, a comment on her now signature red hair and freckles.
That unbridled obsession with Jolene continues through the last three chapters. Her natural talent as an artist comes into play when she marries a tattoo artist (Rupert Friend) and begins to work in his shop. He uses her for her talent, which is yet another layer of control that Jolene has been trying to free herself from since her first marriage. If you needed any more of a clue as to how Jolene feels, you’ll need only look to some of the on-the-nose visual cues director Dan Ireland supplies. Jolene looking through a birdcage, that ever-flowing hope in her eyes, says it loud and clear.
Chapter four features Jolene as a stripper in Las Vegas, while chapter five has her attempting to settle down as a housewife and mother. Actresses usually run through a string of indie films to check off the stereotypical roles they’re essentially forced to play, but Chastain is able to knock those all out in one film. Free spirit youth, struggling artist, woman exploring her sexuality, stripper, housewife and mom; Jolene is a transformative effort for the chameleon Chastain. In her first feature, we see a glimpse of what’s to come. Look at Chastain’s two Oscar-nominated roles in The Help and Zero Dark Thirty, for example; one role is a high-pitched, bubbly southern belle, the other a tough-as-nails “I’m the motherfucker that found this place, sir.” CIA analyst. That range is fully on display in Jolene, from a naive girl to a strong force of nature.
The film Jolene ends with our lead walking down the streets of Hollywood, once again daydreaming of a better life. Through narration she reveals her desire to be an actress, to be respected and to be fully free and happy. Seeing it now, with the acclaim Chastain has built up over the years, it’s a truly retroactively meta moment. It takes some conviction to have your lead actress, who has never acted in a feature film before, to make such a statement by saying in character “I’m going to be a star.” And to have it come true for the real-life actress herself, well, that’s a bit lovely clairvoyance you don't normally see in indies like this.
Director Dan Ireland, who unfortunately passed away earlier this year, should be given a lot of credit for helping launch Chastain’s career. He immediately saw potential in her and fostered a healthy working relationship on set (Chastain has said working with Chazz Palminteri on the film was a real learning experience). She came fully prepared, providing a backstory for her character, taking art lessons, learning to roller-skate for just one scene, and supplying a music playlist she thought Jolene would listen to, from which Ireland used three songs for the film.
Jolene isn’t a perfect film, but if you see it as a launching pad for one of our greatest actresses, it truly is something special. It does get heavy-handed by the end, but the one thing to keep your eye on, and the one thing keeping the film afloat is the grace of Jessica Chastain.