A simple adjustment in perspective can completely change how a story comes to life on-screen. It is this fact that makes it necessary that cinema be able to diversify. Female filmmakers, LGBTQ filmmakers and filmmakers of color each have rich stories inside of them and movie industries the world over will only get better with inclusion. As such, The Rhythm Section holds exciting potential, presenting a rising star in director Reed Morano, tackling an espionage thriller– a genre that few women have cracked. The potential is astronomical… now, does it hold up under the pressure? Well, read on.
The movie follows Stephanie (Blake Lively), a young woman reeling after her family is killed in a plane crash– a plane she was supposed to be on. She’s pulled out of a trauma-filled life of prostitution and drugs by a well-meaning freelance journalist (Raza Jaffrey) and quickly finds herself launched into a new life of violence and espionage as she pursues the revenge she craves. Jude Law and Sterling K. Brown co-star in the film. Reed Morano directs from a script by Mark Burnell.
Unfortunately, The Rhythm Section struggles from the outset. Director Morano, who’s best known to audiences for her work in television on shows like The Handmaid’s Tale and The Power, employs a heavy-handed directing and editing style, especially throughout the first act of the movie. There are extreme close-ups, jump cuts and many awkward moments of editing. In attempting to interpret the choice, Morano seems to be aligning the audience with Stephanie’s perspective. Due to her fragile state at the beginning of the narrative, as well as the character’s drug addiction, her perspective is definitely going to be muddled. The style then changes as the story progresses and Stephanie eventually finds her footing and shakes her substance abuse issues. While the choice is an interesting one, it doesn’t really work in its on-screen execution and only serves to disorient the viewer. Any narrative effect is largely lost in translation.
The film comes from executive producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, best known to audiences for their work on the James Bond franchise. In the hands of Broccoli and director Morano, The Rhythm Section presents a brutal narrative, harkening to some of the rougher Bond movies. Lively’s Stephanie is a complicated and challenging protagonist. In fact, the equality in the narrative is refreshing. The movie is largely unencumbered by the male gaze, a rare feat in a genre which historically thrives on sex and the sexualization of female characters.
Furthermore, Morano isn’t afraid to present the brutality in this story, a level of which is often rare in woman-led thrillers. The action sequences in this movie are knock-down, drag out and pit Stephanie against her usually bigger male costars. These sequences don’t have the theatrics of Atomic Blonde, or the slightly fantastical elements of Wonder Woman. It is gritty, it is hardcore, but watching Stephanie triumph in these fights is exhilarating.
It is ultimately disappointing that The Rhythm Section never quite finds its footing. Blake Lively is well known to audiences, typically for playing a certain breed of character. This time out, she’s upped her game to a brand new level. The movie scrubs away the exorbitant glamour of her earlier roles, stripping Lively to her raw talent as an actress. The transformation is staggering. Lively takes Stephanie through a wide-ranging and complex character arc and she very much carries the story on her shoulders through everything. Meanwhile, Jude Law is… Jude Law… the actor has found himself a bit typecast of late, and it continues in this film. Meanwhile, Sterling K. Brown doesn’t find himself with terribly much to do either. Burnell’s script is most certainly compelling, but it could have been more so with a better use of these actors.
When all is said and done, The Rhythm Section is a disappointment due to what it could have been. Blake Lively carries the movie squarely on her shoulders, giving a thoroughly unique and interesting performance, which stands out in her filmography. Creatively there are a lot of interesting things going on in The Rhythm Section, it is just unfortunate that it is so weighed down by its stylistic issues.