Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
THE RHYTHM SECTION
Rated R, 109 minutes
Directed by: Reed Morano
The name Stephanie Patrick may not replace Jason Bourne, nor even James Bond. Yet in director Reed Morano’s THE RHYTHM SECTION, she sure gives them a run for their money – but not in shaky-cam artifice nor glossy style. This action-thriller echoes those icons with a similar character drive, centering on a grief-stricken woman who finds redemption through revenge. While the film moves at its own pace, and gets sidetracked, Morano and star Blake Lively creatively capture a catchy lo-fi tempo.
Our protagonist (Blake Lively) has been on a self-destructive path ever since a tragic plane crash robbed her of her family and bright future. Three years prior, Stephanie was a bubbly intellectual Oxford student when the traumatic accident occurred, plunging her into a deep, dark state of sorrow and anxiety. Her bruised, scab-riddled body tells a silent story, mistreated by self-inflicted physical and psychological abuse, housing painful memories of happier days that she’s now determined to numb with drugs and prostitution.
However, her life pivots towards purpose when investigative journalist Keith Proctor (Raza Jaffrey) tracks her down, sharing that the tragedy wasn’t an accident. It was an act of terrorism, and he’s got a lead on the bomb maker. After failing to confront and kill said bomb maker, Reza (Tawfeek Barhom), Proctor turns up dead, so Stephanie goes it alone in search of Proctor’s source. She high-tails it to Ireland, encountering Iain Boyd (Jude Law) on his remote countryside compound. He’s an ex-MI-6 agent who whips her into shape, training this ordinary woman to do the extraordinary.
There’s a lot to value in this female-centered, female-directed feature, whereas the female-fronted films directed by men have disappointed. Unlike the male gaze through which RED SPARROW was written and lensed, Moreno eschews any exploitative devices when dealing either with the aesthetics (minimal gratuitous gore) or the narrative (no rape). While it’s not afraid to dive deep into properly-motivated violence, gender-based peril and sex appeal are kept to a minimum. It’s approached mainly when Stephanie begins Boyd’s fight training and later when she takes a contract hit job as a glam dominatrix. However, the filmmakers blessedly don’t lean on that crutch like LA FEMME NIKITA and it’s English remake POINT OF NO RETURN. They take efforts to downplay Lively’s natural beauty, dressing her in bland, sack-like wardrobe and giving her an inconspicuously mousy mop.
Morano keeps the narrative feeling immediate and insular, showing Stephanie’s perspective through aesthetic flourishes – like the blurred corners of the frame and the feeling of isolation when Stephanie is detoxing and her mission is coming into focus. Shooting from her POV adds to the effect, as seen in the dizzying ambush approaching Boyd’s house, or when we’re given a passenger seat in Stephanie’s stolen car as she speeds down unfamiliar streets (think an unvarnished iteration of ATOMIC BLONDE’s swirling car chase). Color palette shifts also occur throughout to affect moods, morphing from warm earth tones to brighter creams as Stephanie’s depression lifts, finishing on a defined navy.
Portraying Stephanie as a normal woman, not as a superhero spy who picks up her skills easily, is one of the film’s strengths. It realistically shows the effects of her injuries. She’s a scrappy fighter who’s compromised further when taking the brunt of her adversary’s brutality. And those injuries don’t magically heal after one sequence either. Perhaps the picture’s most innocuous asset is how it does away with the piercing ear-ringing sound utilized of late to connote temporary discombobulation. In Stephanie’s soundscape, when her ears are blown out by an explosion, it mimics her being underwater – which recalls an earlier sequence where she answers the hero’s call to action by swimming across a freezing cold lake.
That said, screenwriter Mark Burnell, who adapts his own novel here, struggles to maintain clear definition of his three leads and one tertiary supporting character. Former CIA-turned-informant Marc Serra’s (Sterling K. Brown) introduction is clunky at best. Stephanie, Boyd and Marc’s pursuit of Reza takes a tangential turn when she’s inexplicably forced to prove to Marc that she’s her undercover persona Petra. While the scenario is ultimately there to remind Stephanie that her rage has consequences, giving her the obstacle of self-doubt to overcome, it’s time taken away from the mounting momentum.
Things are also a little threadbare when it comes to the issue of Stephanie’s loyalty and trust. How can she trust these men are telling her the truth? When does her own intuition kick in? It’s odd that she never really struggles with this, but perhaps it’s because she’s too busy working through her grief and angst to question if their motives align with her own vengeful goals. While this is all moderately forgivable as the movie marches to the beat of a different drum, the rhythm’s method is dubious.
THE RHYTHM SECTION opens on January 31.