With the actors that we follow for a lifetime, there is always that one movie that you go back to, the one that represented the moment of discovery, when you knew as you left the theater, you wanted to know what they would do next.
For me, with Ryan Gosling, it was “Half Nelson” in 2006, his inner-city junior high teacher idealism clashing with his drug addiction in ways that were both incredibly complex and intimate. With Jessica Chastain, it was more recent, “The Tree of Life” last spring. A wordless moment, outside on a windy day, her arms encircling her sons, her hair whipped by the wind, her eyes staring into an unforeseeable future, strength and steel wrapped inside what felt like an unending sadness.
Chastain seems to have come out of nowhere this year to captivate us in one film after another. In addition to “Tree of Life,” there has been “The Help” and “The Debt,” with “Take Shelter,” “Texas Killing Fields,” “Wilde Salome” and “Coriolanus” due before year’s end. For Gosling, a cinematic constant who has turned into a veritable force-field in 2011, it began with “Blue Valentine” spilling over from late December, then “Crazy, Stupid, Love” over the summer, “Drive” out now, followed by “The Ides of March” in a few weeks.
Fortune may have favored Gosling and Chastain, who will both turn 31 in the coming months, with an unplanned confluence of performances on-screen — ones they could lose themselves in; ones so distinctive that we couldn’t help but pay attention to — but it was talent, of the purer sort, that got them here.
Creatures of an increasingly rare breed, they are unconventional actors, unintentional Hollywood stars, classical in their thinking and, in the case of Chastain, who spent her college years at Juilliard, training as well. They are actors who seem to come with complex interior lives, whatever the source. Their work is enriched and expansive without giving away all their secrets. Neither are in the tabloid business; when they’re questioned on the red carpet, they tend to turn introspective, take the question seriously as if something more than a sound bite was wanted. Intelligence and elegance win out in a world dominated by cheap tricks, and you can’t help but hope that will never change.
When Gosling says he takes only characters who interest him, when Chastain talks about her desire for a diversity that will ward off typecasting, when they both quietly suggest they don’t want to make decisions based on money, it does not sound like posturing, so you actually believe them. Look at their work, the trajectory of their careers, and what you find is substance, not flash. How refreshing that we cannot predict what they will do next, though we increasingly want to see it.
It is a range of character types so eclectic — and often in ensembles that include the likes of Brad Pitt (Chastain) and George Clooney (Gosling) — that there is little worry they will suffer the dreaded Jude Law effect. This happened in what I think of as the “Alfie” year, when Law appeared in six films that were a creative mixed bag, turned real life into a celebrity highlight reel, so that by the end of 2004 most of us had tired of him playing the romantic rogue — on-screen and off.
Though Gosling got his break at 12, from the new “Mickey Mouse Club” of all places, and Chastain came to us mostly by way of stage and Al Pacino finding her there, they specialize in highly impressionistic performancesabstract
For Chastain, who had been operating in the shadows, and by that I mean theater and a little TV, this is clearly her year, the one that will begin to define her for us. The ground shifted with director Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” in May. In a sense she embodied the tree of life in the most literal of ways — mother as creator and protector — a storm-tossed survivor of immeasurable depth. A few months later, her blond bombshell, all sweetness and light, sashed through “The Help,” standing out in a film stuffed with far better-known actresses. On its heels came “The Debt,” with Chastain slipping into action thriller mode as an undercover spy who needed to look at ease with a gun, not as challenging no doubt as having to play the younger self of one of the industry’s grande dames, Helen Mirren.
She does it all with such an open grace. The face is what stops you first — beautiful, lighted from within, almost like a figure in a Raphael painting. We may never know all the joys and pains that have shaped her, only that she felt them deeply, something she telegraphs with her eyes.
Chastain and Gosling each have a generous nature on-screen, existing fully within a moment, yet sharing the space with their colleagues. It makes for heartbreaking scenes. Consider Chastain as Celia in “The Help,” teetering on high heels and emotions as she offers friendship and a pie to Bryce Dallas Howard’s Hilly, her smile dissolving with the realization that once again she’s been excluded, that she will never be invited in. Or take Gosling in “Drive” — you can literally feel the intensity drain away and hopelessness overtake every move as he stares into the face of betrayal, letting us know in the frustrated shrug of his shoulders, the pacing as he talks, that despite the pain, he understands why someone so close, someone who cared, would still sell him out. By the end Gosling leaves his character, and us, spent.
Gosling ended last year on a bittersweet note with his bruised and soon-to-be-broken spouse in “Blue Valentine.” In “Crazy, Stupid, Love” he became the unexpected romantic. He’s often coming at love from off-center, never more so than “Lars and the Real Girl,” one of his most sensitive performances.
If there is a common thread in the roles they seem to gravitate toward, it is found in the testing of character, uncovering the dignity within the most flawed of humans. With Gosling, it’s as if he is forever fighting his way out of a paper bag, letting us witness his often aching vulnerability. Chastain seems to be always pushing up against, and through, some nameless pain. It casts the slightest shadows even on her brightest smiles.
The bulk of the films on Gosling’s docket reteam him with the filmmakers whose sensibilities have so recently influenced his performances, including Derek Cianfrance, who directed him in “Blue Valentine,” and Nicolas Winding Refn, who was behind the wheel in “Drive.” Chastain has another Malick project in the works, a period film with “The Road” director John Hillcoat due in theaters early next year and a turn as a punk rocker in an indie, “Mama,” Andres Muschietti’s feature directing debut. Of course how things actually unfold over the years is still anyone’s guess. For now, I’m content to wait and watch.