Is Jessica Chastain a Great Movie Guarantee?

"Lawless" star Jessica Chastain has become The Next Big Thing after a quick succession of solid performances in "The Help," "The Tree of Life," "Take Shelter," "Texas Killing Fields," "Coriolanus," and "The Debt." The release dates were a crazy coincidence; the actress had been working on stage and screen for years before catching the eye of the movie-going public (and the Academy) in "The Help." There's also the fact that being attached to a Terrence Malick film like "The Tree of Life" got her name out among industry people way before regular film fans had heard of her, especially given how long it takes the reclusive director to finish a film.

Still, it's impossible not to notice what a consistently good actress she is in a wild variety of roles. Just in the past two years, she's been an ethereal mother, a bit of a Southern rebel, an undercover Mossad agent, and a Texas detective on the hunt for a killer. Then there are her stage-trained Shakespearean chops, which she put to good use in "Coriolanus." It's noteworthy, too, that there wasn't a bad one in the bunch. They weren't all perfect, and some were divisive (as many hated "The Tree of Life" as loved it), but none of them were unwatchable. They were all provoking, entertaining, brave, and moving. They were movies you didn't hate yourself for in the morning.

If pop culture criticism is to be believed, Chastain's next step should have been latching onto a saccharine romantic comedy about a single lady desperate to marry or playing a superhero's skeptical girlfriend. However, Chastain has done the exact opposite of that.

LawlessIn "Lawless," she plays a showgirl looking for a fresh start in a small town in decidedly unglamorous West Virginia. She takes a job in a general store run by the legendary Bondurant brothers, bootleggers and local legends that are always in a mess of trouble. While critics have noted it's a somewhat thankless role, she deserves credit for choosing a Western gangster movie directed by John Hillcoat and written by Nick Cave instead of a cushy paycheck. The enthusiastic reviews have been pouring in since Cannes, and while it's an ensemble flick, it's hard to argue Chastain (who got her own gun-wielding character poster) isn't as much a part of the appeal as Tom Hardy in a cardigan.

The next film Chastain appears in comes out this Christmas, and it's definitely no slouch. "Zero Dark Thirty," Kathryn Bigelow's highly anticipated drama about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, is shrouded in secrecy and controversy. Chastain was tight-lipped about her role when she spoke to MTV Movies Blog, allowing only that her role was "awesome" and that "[it] was a very stressful shoot." The subject matter and the shoot locations make it clear she's going to be a woman of action in what's sure to be an Oscar frontrunner as the season ramps up.

As for 2013, that's already packed to the gills with anticipated films. "Mama," a chilly thriller executive produced by Guillermo del Toro, is slated for January, and she's currently filming an "Eleanor Rigby" double feature about a troubled marriage told from both the husband's and the wife's perspectives. While she may have had a few serious talks with Marvel -- she dropped out of "Iron Man 3" because she was just too busy -- Chastain isn't in a hurry to abandon independent and international film projects. Meanwhile, she also has "Tar" in the can; the esoteric biopic about author C.K. Williams costars Mila Kunis and James Franco.

Despite a multitude of offers, Chastain has chosen only one paycheck role, and that's voicing a jaguar named Gia in "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted." She admitted to UK mag "Total Film" that she took the role so she could buy a new couch. (Stars! They need new furniture, just like us!) And hey, everyone who stars in a Terrence Malick film deserves one cash-in. It's a rule.

Chastain calls herself "the unknown everyone is already sick of," but that couldn't be further from the truth. Her career is unfolding in a fascinating, exciting, and admirable way. It's likely she was offered plenty of high-paying starring roles in meet-cutes and the like, but she neatly sidestepped them all to risk her hard-won stardom in original and rebellious ways. We think she's destined to join the elite club of performers like Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and Kate Winslet who will happily go ugly, fearless, cute, mean, or funny for a rich character. She'll keep us guessing, and most importantly, watching. We want to see a movie because it has Chastain in it. We know it's going to be thoughtful, mature, and enjoyable. That's a rare thing in the current cinematic landscape, and it's exciting to see an actress embodying it so easily.