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Critic's Notebook: The star quality of Ryan Gosling and Jessica Chastain

They each contain a pure, unconventional talent that should make them watchable for a long time.

September 25, 2011|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Jessica Chastain and Ryan Gosling are actors you know you will follow for a lifetime.
Jessica Chastain and Ryan Gosling are actors you know you will follow for… (Genaro Molina / Carolyn…)

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.

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