Red Headed Stranger: Stolen and The Debt
In the first part of this series chronicling Jessica Chastain’s onscreen work, her debut in Jolene was the main focus. A phenomenal start for the actress, the film itself was worthy of its own write-up. With this entry, though, two of her films will be profiled; one an effective thriller featuring a solid performance from the actress, the other a microscopic blip on her otherwise remarkable filmography. Both serve as stepping stones leading up to her breakthrough year in 2011.
Jolene wasn’t released theatrically until 2010, after premiering first at the Seattle International Film Festival in 2008. According to director Dan Ireland on the film's DVD commentary, her performance in Jolene caught the eye of a prominent agent in Hollywood who helped to cast her in the high-profile indies that would soon follow. Al Pacino and Ralph Fiennes took notice, casting her in their respective directorial efforts, Coriolanus and Salomé, while Terrence Malick cast her in his first film in six years, The Tree of Life, all in 2011. Among the respected filmmakers utilizing Chastain around this time was Shakespeare in Love director John Madden, who would go on to cast in 2010’s The Debt and would later reunite with her on 2016’s Miss Sloane. Shortly before being featured in Madden’s World War II spy thriller, she had a very, very small role in the 2009 film Stolen.
In Stolen (formerly Stolen Lives), Jon Hamm plays a detective who is obsessed with solving his son’s disappearance. With the discovery of a boy’s body at a construction site, the film jumps back and forth between Hamm’s investigation and a murder from 50 years ago, with Josh Lucas playing a dad trying to raise his kids after his wife’s suicide. Cutting right to the chase, Chastain is only in five minutes of the film’s 96-minute runtime. She is in the flashback storyline, playing a waitress who serves Lucas’ character and his kids at a diner who then pops up at the end as a plot device, wrapping up a dangling storyline in a not-so-neat little bow.
It’s hard to really judge her performance in Stolen as she’s only in two scenes. Chastain has a southern accent in the role of Sally Ann, which is reminiscent to the accent she has in Jolene. There’s a flash of potential there in her essentially thankless role. The film itself is not very good. Stolen is poorly shot with too many hackneyed plot contrivances. Unfortunately, it has rightfully earned the status of a forgotten indie. Fans of any of the actors involved will inevitably want to unearth this film; they should be warned, though, Jon Hamm, Josh Lucas, James Van Der Beek, and Jessica Chastain, while they try their best, don’t make Stolen worth the watch.
A year later in 2010, in Madden’s The Debt, Chastain was cast in a much more substantial role as the co-lead. She plays a Mossad agent, Rachel Singer, who in 1965 plots to capture a Nazi war criminal in order to bring him to justice in Israel. She’s teamed with two other agents, David (Sam Worthington) and Stefan (Marton Csokas), and a love triangle, unsurprisingly enough, develops. Things don’t go as planned and the film’s secondary storyline deals with the aftermath of the operation, 30 years later. Esteemed actors Helen Mirren, Ciaran Hinds, and Tom Wilkinson play the older versions of Rachel, David, and Stefan.
The Debt features a stellar Chastain performance. Rachel is the character that binds the film together. Her actions in the 1965 storyline resonate through the thirty year time jump where we see Mirren carrying the torch of pathos, paying off the emotional debt owed from Chastain’s incarnation of the character. Chastain is given some heavy duty hand-to-hand combat and gunplay, which she handles like a pro and makes you wonder why we don’t seen more of her in action mode. And as is typical with a World War II era spy film, there are foreign languages and accents marked with layers of duplicity that comes with the territory. Chastain feels at home here, a chameleon of a performer, going from badass to a powerfully reserved; she elevates what would typically be a standard spy thriller.
Both Stolen and The Debt feature shifts in the past and present, with Chastain representing key roles in the past storylines, with a different actress in both playing her character in the future. Either it’s a coincidence or Chastain has a thing for character decade jumps in narratives (also see Interstellar). While Stolen is a frustrating watch that doesn’t offer much, The Debt presents its standard espionage framework with optimal class, as provided by Madden’s direction and the casts’ performance, to make it a worthy entry in Chastain’s filmography.
In the months following the premiere of The Debt, the indie world came to know the name Jessica Chastain all too well. In a twelve month span, she would appear in six films and would be nominated for an Academy Award. With Stolen and The Debt, her climb to the top of the indie world was just getting started.