Thursday, December 1, 2016

Miss Sloane movie review.

Flashback to 2011, and you may recall a total of four (or was it six?) films come out that all had one thing in common, then up and coming film actress Jessica Chastain. Moving seamlessly between existential drama The Tree of Life, action vehicle The Debt, dramatic comedy The Help, and independent drama Take Shelter, the fiery and versatile redhead quickly grew more and more in popularity, earning two Oscar nominations within as many years, and continuing to be a valuable presence to almost every film she's in.

Five years later, we now see her teaming back up with her director of The Debt, John Madden. This time around, the duo have teamed up for political thriller Miss Sloane, a film based around the world of lobbyists and gun control, that I'm luckily among the first to see.

Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) is a hard-edged political lobbyist who has garnered a reputation for her unorthodox, and often cold methods of securing victories in the cases she takes. She's soon approached by a rival company head Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong), with a proposal to sway support to the "Heaton Harris" bill encouraging stricter gun control, which she accepts. However, she soon comes under heavy scrutiny and targeting by those at the NRA, including those in her former law firm that represent the organization. Yet as her tactics and her trump cards get more heated and vicious, she begins alienating more than just her conservative rivals, but also those people closest to her that she begins to manipulate like simple pawns in her own twisted campaign.

As the film opens up, with Chastain looking directly into the camera, she tells the audience that the key to victory is foresight and surprise, to always remain one step ahead of your opponent, and only play your trump card immediately after theirs. This soon becomes a running theme throughout Miss Sloane, in that it's a film whose strengths are built around pulling the rug underneath the viewer. The political world of the film that John Madden sets up often feels very much like a stage performance, relying on a great deal of charisma and understatement, shock value, and stirring moments of heated tension. It's a world built on your ability to fool the audience into the belief that the acts before them are anything more than an illusion, about manipulating the emotion of the viewer by way of manufactured narrative, and cleverly distract attention away from outside forces. Sure, it's not a particularly new or innovative representation to the lobbying on the screen, but Madden's direction of the film is still so tightly focused and suspenseful that such a thing becomes easy to overlook.

The film plays out as something of a mix between an espionage thriller, and an Aaron Sorkin drama, with The Newsroom actors Alison Pill and Sam Waterston coincidentally playing major roles. There's a great deal of walk and talk going on in the film, and focus on a lot of political jargon and tactical plays, yet in spite of those political undertones, what's a benefit to the film is that it chooses to avoid taking any overt stances on the gun control topics, and instead place most of its focus on the character study, and the lingering effects inflicted by Sloane's time in this world. Enhancing the aforementioned performance quality of the film, there's also a trace of shallowness beneath the surface, wherein it feels like a soul-sucking entity depriving those residing in it of honest human emotion, making them progressively remorseless. There are no inherently black or white stances to be made here, instead coming across in a very grey and dubious middle-ground, with words being just as cruel and venomous as any physical violence.

Airtight and slick as Johnathan Parera's script may be, he also unfortunately gets burdened by the sometimes heavy exposition of the film, which tend to upset the otherwise natural flow. With the film also making a great effort to always be ahead of its audiences, it also relies on a great deal of interwoven twists, including a number of seeming non-sequiturs, that come to a heated boil during the last ten minutes of the film. Now whether you find these twists to be brilliantly presented or ludicrous beyond all explanation, I'll leave up to you, but for me, these major twists are sort of a mixed bag. They may be fitting routes to tread, and enhance the already strong commentary of the film, but are also undone by unforeseeable coincidences poking holes in logic.

Still, Miss Sloane is more than worthy of your time, and if you wonder why I opened this review with such lengthy words about Jessica Chastain, it's because of the fact that she dominates this film. It's a type of role we've seen Chastain perform quite well, and you can see some similarities to her turns in Zero Dark Thirty and A Most Violent Year, but her Elizabeth Sloane is an absolute beast of a performance that sees her at her most stone cold. Sloane is a complicated figure, a brilliant strategist plotting out her moves like an always moving game of chess, able to read and analyze her opponents to the note, all while keeping her own personal self a constant enigma with more questions than answers. All this time within the lobbying world has rendered her cold, hard, and has blurred her own moral compass, envisioning everything before her in a very black and white fashion, yet all the while not shy or hesitant to bend and exploit events to her advantage, even toying with her most loyal subjects like a puppeteer.

For much of the film, her devil's advocate and poster child is Esme (played by a fantastic Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a young woman with her own personal stakes in the gun control bid, who is often seemingly the only ray of innocent light in an otherwise cynical and unforgiving environment, aware of but willing to naively overlook how much Elizabeth is exploiting her for her personal gain. In fact, all throughout the film, it's clear how much Elizabeth envies the idea of a more modest life, as she's a workaholic suffering with bouts of insomnia and emotional imbalance, even coping with them by imagining a more simplistic existence she can't seem to have, as comes to be seen in several affairs she has with Jake Lacy's escort. But at the end of the day, her interior still comes to prove just as icy as her exterior, digging deeper into that obsessive desire to win, even if it means burning bridges and self-sabotage.

So if for no other reason, Chastain's nuanced, yet intense and outstanding performance still merits the film a recommendation, and makes it one of the more pleasant surprises to come out this year. It's sleek, engaging, and dripping with tension throughout.

**** / *****

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