Jessica Chastain is outstanding in sharp thriller ‘Miss Sloane’

Kerry Hayes/Courtesy
"Miss Sloane" | EuropaCorp
Grade: B

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The political thriller film is more relevant than ever before, especially when one centers on gun control laws. John Madden’s “Miss Sloane,” however, fails to be the post-election political commentary we need. The film is, at its foundation, a thoughtful character study, one that is dressed up as a sophisticated political thriller in order to give it more weight as a vehicle for a Jessica Chastain award nomination. While the film benefits from stellar acting performances, an addictive balance between fast pacing and slow suspense and multiple plot twists, “Miss Sloane” suffers as a certain brand of traditional melodrama and improbability of plot that works magically in a TV show but plays insincerely in a movie.

Jessica Chastain stars as Elizabeth Sloane, a notorious Washington lobbyist with a reputation for risking anything to win. When she decides to take on her most daunting challenge yet, lobbying for restrictions on guns, she is forced to bend the rules more than she ever has before, even if it means sacrificing her career, friendships and personal safety. No character is safe from Sloane’s maneuvers, and political agents race against time to outdo her before she surprises them.

Naturally, Chastain delivers a sensational performance. Sloane is intimidating, unstable, passionate, detached, assertive and manipulative all at once. Chastain is a rare actress that can command the screen just as effortlessly as she can become totally vulnerable in front of it, and Sloane’s moments of weakness — her substance abuse, insomnia and late-night indiscretions — are just as rich and detailed as are her moments in charge as head of the lobbying campaign. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is equally excellent as Esme Manucharian, Sloane’s right-hand advisor and the public face of the campaign. Manucharian is the ultimate foil to Sloane’s cunning, and Mbatha-Raw gracefully handles the character’s victimization and tumultuous relationship with Sloane.  

It can be difficult for a film about politics to build intensity and urgency, but Madden approaches this masterfully. The pacing of this film feels just right; most scenes move quickly enough to convey the monumental pressure that the lobbyists are facing, but certain moments are permitted to sit, allowing the storm to build before sailing back into the hurricane of Sloane’s design. Jonathan Perera’s script puts the audience constantly on edge; it gives it small tastes of Sloane’s remarkable strategism only to lure it into a false sense of calm before uprooting it once again. Madden convinces the viewers over and over again that they have Sloane all figured out, so that every sudden turn leaves them utterly floored.

It’s possible, however, that Madden takes suspense-building too far, and the film skirts dangerously close to the style of TV political dramas like “Scandal.” Every plot twist plays like a mid season finale cliffhanger. The general format of “Miss Sloane” — long periods of dramatic scenes designed around the goal of character development but punctuated by scandalous revelations — is perfect for a weekly TV serial, but condensing this pattern into 132 minutes exposes the structured nature of it and sucks away at the legitimacy of the narrative. There’s a certain rhythm to the story that exists too close to the surface; the twists come across as contrived because it’s so easy for the audience to anticipate the arrival of a surprise, even if the precise content of a reveal is obscured.

The film is by no means a genuine representation of American politics, and yet it behaves like it wants to be one. The antihero’s bittersweet ending is almost whimsical in its improbability, and so the finale plays as disingenuous and ironic in its total lack of rationale. And yet, the somber, ultra-serious tone is uncomfortably consistent, as if Madden wants to compensate for the absurdity of the situation with a heightened sense of gravitas.

Luckily for Chastain, “Miss Sloane” squeezes by as just sharp enough to be a strong platform for her potential awards nomination. Though the film sacrifices a degree of realism to generate higher stakes, the payoff is a thoroughly engaging Washington drama with surprises at every turn. Madden’s biggest mistake, it would seem, was not pitching “Miss Sloane” as a TV show.

Contact Shannon O’Hara at [email protected].