Women, guns and power. That's the Holy Trinity at the forefront of the sizzling political thriller "Miss Sloane."
It's relevant and revealing, especially in today's climate of rampant gun violence. Mostly, though, it's a chance for Jessica Chastain ("Zero Dark Thirty") to let loose with one of her fiercest performances. As the film's title character, a Washington lobbyist, Chastain commands your attention. "Lobby is about foresight" is Sloan's mantra; and playing your trump card "just after they play theirs" is her practice. And so, dear moviegoers, you best be on guard, because Miss Madeleine Elizabeth Sloane (Liz, for short) takes no prisoners.
Liz -- clad in platform heels, fitted blazers, lips lacquered in her signature crimson hue -- is the most ambitious and cutthroat lobbyist inside the beltway. She talks fast, thinks quicker and isn't afraid to get down and dirty. When a high-powered gun advocate tries to hire her to stall a gun-control bill and drive a message of guns empowering females, she howls with laughter -- calling the plan so crude that it could have only "originated in a room full of old men." Told by her boss (Sam Waterston) to play nice or else, Liz jumps to the other side of the aisle to team with her new boss (Mark Strong) to fight the gun lobby. A dangerous, no-holds-barred battle of politics ensues.
In the hands of director John Madden ("Shakespeare in Love," "The Debt"), the movie is as gripping as it is timely, with its bullets aimed directly at the power players inside D.C. who've sold their souls to deep-pocketed lobbying groups. One of the reasons "Miss Sloane" works is the intricate, cleverly plotted script by first-time feature writer Jonny Perera. He frames his story around a congressional hearing investigating Liz's ethical choices. The film oscillates between the hearing, where Liz pleads the Fifth Amendment before Rep. Ron Sperling (John Lithgow), and flashbacks to fill in the details on her questionable activities and associations.
If there's a shortcoming, it could be "Miss Sloane's" lack of backstory. All we know is she pops benzos like Tic-Tacs, reads John Grisham novels and never sleeps. The script drops hints there may a bigger reason she decides to take aim at guns, but there's no major reveal. Like most thrillers, there is a plot twist in the end, so stick with it and you'll be rewarded.
Still, Perera's Aaron Sorkin-style dialogue would mean nothing if his words weren't delivered by a first-rate cast that includes Alison Pill ("The Newsroom") as Liz's assistant, Gugu Mbatha-Raw ("Concussion") as Liz's right-hand woman, Michael Stuhlbarg ("Arrival") as a rival lobbyist and Jake Lacy ("Carol") as a hunky Texan escort.
All are outstanding but it's Chastain who gets under your skin. It's refreshing to see a strong woman take charge of a movie in which she is as ruthless and uncompromising as a man. She's Tony Soprano, Walter White and Don Draper all mixed into one. The movie talks a lot about perception and "changing the narrative." For powerful female roles, this is a good start.
-- Dana Barbuto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
Cast: Jessica Chastain, John Lithgow, Mark Strong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Sam Waterston, Jake Lacy.
(R for language and some sexuality.)