There’s little doubt that the success of John Madden’s latest film, Miss Sloane, lays in the blisteringly chilly performance from Jessica Chastain as a Washington lobbyist who plays the political system like chess, happy to sacrifice anyone – even allies – in her wake.
In the opening moments of the film she faces off against John Lithgow’s sullen jowls as a senior senator brought in to investigate whether this maverick lobbyist is operating within the law. It is a bracing opening that draws you in with immediate effect. In its best moments recalling J.C. Chandor’s debut Margin Call, freshman screenwriter Jonathan Perera’s script sat on last year’s black list before becoming snapped up. Madden, who worked with Chastain on The Debt (albeit briefly), also had some involvement in developing the script and is no doubt in part responsible for the flourishes to Sloane’s character that paint her as more than a heel-clicking stereotype.
The crux of the movie rests on Chastain’s Miss Sloane abandoning her comfy job as a top-level lobbyist in favour of a more ethical gig campaigning for a change to the second amendment – much to the chagrin of the pro-gun lobbyist up on the hill. Miss Sloane, at its best, is less a political thriller and more an intriguing character study and in Chastain’s hands, it becomes a masterclass in acting. Closer to her role in A Most Violent Year than Zero Dark Thirty‘s Maya, Chastain shows once again that she has a talent for discovering fascinating characters. Sloane is much more than a cold-hearted, ruthless workaholic. Yes, she possesses an unyielding drive to win, but for all that Chastain imbues a deep sense of melancholy to her character, making the audience empathise, however heartless she is to her fellow characters.
Part of the power of the performance lays in Chastain’s poise, garbed in crisp, often black and white clothes, coming across part Cruella Deville, part Miranda Priestly. Everything except the winning the vote is functional for Sloane; she quips to a colleague that she can’t wait for the advent of the food pill – food isn’t anything but fuel. Sex too follows suit, with her using a local escort (Jake Lacy) to get what she needs and then merrily wishes him on his way. Yet for all Sloane’s strength ultimately every scene is imbued with sadness, she knows the price of the game and whether it is worth it.
Watching her dispatch her allies and enemies alike is both brutal and oddly understandable. Yet, there is always a sneaking suspicion that for all her cunning there is also a great deal of, if not heart, then deep moral principle. While Chastain, and the surrounding cast, drive the narrative there is no denying that as time runs on it begins to unravel frustratingly, reaching an unsatisfying conclusion. Yet, Chastain’s performance is one that lingers in the mind.
Joseph Walsh | @JosephDAWalsh