Plenty of actors are said to “disappear” into their roles; Meryl Streep and Sean Penn come to mind, but even they throw off a consistent charisma no matter the thickness of their accent or putty on their nose. Chastain is more like an empty vessel, and I think she’s at her best when she either has very little or very much to do. Terrence Malick used her as if she were found art in Tree of Life, where she had almost no lines but filled space wonderfully as an idealized mother figure, more symbol than character.
The truth is, she doesn’t really have that much to do in Zero Dark Thirty, either, where a lot of the performance takes place in reaction shots, and she’s mostly required to just look fierce and determined. She’s very good at that—and I doubt it’s easy—but I’m surprised it’s being hailed as one of the year’s great performances, and that it has earned her an Oscar nomination for best actress. It’s not the sort of flashy thing, like playing a transgendered murder victim or quadriplegic boxer, that the Academy normally rewards.
Pretty much sums up what I didn’t enjoy about The Tree of Life. Also yeah, I suspect the reason Jessica Chastain is so lauded because the vocal and influential people in film enjoy watching her. I suppose if you want to get all analytical about it, she’s very good at being looked at. As soon as that disappears, you’re not left with a lot, as this reviewer has found out.