Starring: Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Alison Pill
Director: John Madden
Running Time: 132 mins
Synopsis: Infamously ferocious US lobbyist Elizabeth Sloane (Chastain) surprises all on the hill when she switches sides and seeks to get a new gun bill passed that will see stricter background checks on gun buyers. Up against the might of the gun advocates as well as her former employers Sloane has to ask herself the question, is she doing this because it’s ethically right or because she just wants to win?
Jessica Chastain has slowly risen to become one of the finest actresses in Hollywood, although not quite a household name akin to the likes of Nicole Kidman or Reese Witherspoon, she has certainly got the range, intelligence and beauty to equal them. Chastain is always at her best when playing closed up, fiercely smart and vulnerably dominant authority figures. Think Zero Dark Thirty’s Osama Bin Laden hunter, with her cold to the touch demeanour giving her the drive to zero in on her target, before the incredibly cathartic breakdown she experiences when it’s all over. Miss Sloane is a performance cut from the same cloth and gives her some of the best material she’s ever had.
A brittle, hyper-verbal and ferocious lobbyist Elizabeth Sloane is a feared yet respected player within her high-end law firm. Just as likely to put a smile on her boss’s face as she is to make him spit bile when she doesn’t tow the company line. Sam Waterston gives good spittle as said boss, who becomes a ball of barely contained rage when Sloane decides not to join forces with a notable senator driven to block a vital firearms control bill. Opting to fight for a plucky little firm, determined to get it passed despite little in the way of funds. Lured in by Mark Strong (a controlled eloquent presence as always) who heads up the aforementioned firm, with promise of a battle that is almost too insurmountable to win.
This is the central drive of the entire film. Throughout Chastain plays Sloane with a complex aloofness wherein you never quite know what is inspiring her to fight this supposedly losing corner. Is she genuinely on the side of the angels, ethically driven to pursue the right thing? Or is she so hungry to win no matter the cause? The film, like the character, plays things delightfully coy. You sense there is a soul beneath her cold exterior, a past of intense trauma and familial issues is subtly hinted at, but a number of moves she makes to secure the necessary Congressional votes are troublingly harsh.
These moves usually involve using the people around her as pawns in her great game. Whether that be Alison Pill’s former Junior Associate who seeks to rise up above her previous boss’s putdowns, or the bevy of young upstarts working alongside her desperate for her approval. Heavy tolls are weighed down on Sloane when doing this, notably from Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Esme. The firm’s resident gun statistical expert, who reveals a deeply personal reason for wanting to enact tighter gun control. Sloane callously uses this to strike a major blow against the opposing team in a phenomenally well orchestrated scene that is both triumphant and devastating. It is in this relationship where Sloane finds herself truly tested, Mbatha-Raw shining with a heartfelt pained performance. Fighting the intellectual and unforgiving might of the gun lobbyists is small fry when compared to the painful humanity Sloane desperately wishes to suppress.
This humanity threatens to eke out not just with Esme but in the frequent encounters Sloane has with a male prostitute. Paid to supply her with emotionless sex Jake Lacy’s Forde threatens to break down her barriers with a caring warmth that is quietly endearing. Jonathan Perera’s script is clever enough to not dissolve this into any sort of romantic element, with its piercing one liners and strong intellect preferring to focus on the matter at hand. Director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, The Debt) is also smart enough to know when his script and his cast are formidable enough without resorting to directorial tics. The only real flourish coming from the frequent flashes to a congressional hearing into Sloane’s potentially illegal activities set after the main events of the film that offer a tense glimpse into where things will end up.
The outcome of this hearing, wherein Sloane’s plan comes together, is thrilling if a little far-fetched. Maintaining a keen realism throughout, the film risks undermining itself as Sloane’s plan involves predicting her enemies moves with remarkable prescience to the point of being a mystical soothsayer. None of this is enough to hinder what truly makes Miss Sloane sing. Yes it is always refreshing to have an adult flick that respects its audience’s intelligence but it is Jessica Chastain’s complex, hungry and fierce work that turns Miss Sloane into a must-see.
Verdict: An intellectually challenging, politically charged adult drama that grips you courtesy of an atomic bomb sized Jessica Chastain performance.