The Rhythm Section is about Stephanie Patrick, whose entire family was killed in a plane crash. Three years after the crash, as her life has completely dissolved underneath her, Stephanie is approached by a journalist who claims the crash was not a crash, but a deliberate terrorist attack. This revelation sends her on a mission for revenge that crisscrosses the Atlantic. The film stars Blake Lively, Jude Law, Raza Jaffrey, and Sterling K. Brown. It is directed by Reed Morano and is written by Mark Burnell based on his novel.
My expectations about this film were upended in the first few minutes. The trailer, which I'd been bombarded with far too many times, made me think I knew all kinds of things about this story. I suspected that the family Stephanie loses is her husband and children and that she was already a semi-active intelligence agent or someone with certain skills. It turns out the family she loses are her mother, father, and two siblings. This is a completely other kind of loss because she really has no one left in her life. She doesn't have the background of a spy or an analyst or whatever, she just disintegrates. Though disintegrates is only an understatement as she was an Oxford student before the crash and after she's an addict and prostitute.
I like when my theories are upended and I like even more when it's hard for the protagonist in an action film to pick up on skills. Stephanie trains for months to get just good enough to kill people sloppily. I like the sloppiness. I like the failure and fallibility of the character. Too often, and too often with women in these roles, the hero becomes a superhero over night, but it's not that easy and The Rhythm Section revels in the difficulties and the brutality of success and failure.
Where this film stays with me is in its technical aspects. Reed Morano pulled together a top notch team for this film. I loved the way Sean Bobbitt's camera never left Stephanie's side and found the hardness in Blake Lively's soft features. His coup de grace is a car chase that goes through the crowded, crooked streets of Tangier, but the camera is stationary inside Stephanie's car. It never moves in out, forward or back, just swivels to give different vantages of the chase. The one who put it all together, though, is editor Joan Sobel. Sobel found the moments of incredible juxtaposition where footage of Stephanie's happy family is placed in between the horrors of her current situation. I was hooked when the opening scene is a stagnant shot on Stephanie's face intercut with a very happy family gathering.
I wish I could say the whole film hooked me. There were scenes that seemed to punish us for sitting down to watch the film. It's scene after scene of punishing dreariness. Not to mention the attempts at humor are so dry they're like a single drop of rain in a desert that evaporates before it hits the ground. I was even put off by the several needle drops of popular songs at different parts of the film. In any other film they may be fun and welcome, but here, I was getting whiplash because the scene under the music had a tenuous connection at best and couldn't move us out of the dreariness even with its infectious rhythm.
Though, through all the dreariness of the plot and story, Blake Lively's performance is dreary in the best way. She, like a lot of actresses, had success with one type of role very early on and has since been battling with the perceptions ever since. In The Rhythm Section, Lively is showing off a range she's not been able to before. She transforms into Stephanie, so much so that we can see the history written on her face, the uncomfortableness in her own skin and the anger that drives her into revenge. She is mesmerizing to watch here.
I liked The Rhythm Section fine. It's not just another killing spree of brown faces as the jihadist angle of the bombing would suggest. It's got nuance and technical mastery, but it's an incredible bummer that has no levity or grace from the exhausting sadness. I would suggest you see this for the central performance and the really exciting filmmaking, but nothing else.