There's nothing to be ashamed of if you can't figure out what the heck is going on in the early minutes of "Miss Sloane." First-time screenwriter Jonathan Perera and veteran director John Madden (the overrated "Shakespeare in Love," the underrated "The Debt," the delightful "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel") take their time explaining things. Don't worry; the wait is worth it.
You know, right away, that Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) is in bigtime trouble, as she's introduced practicing that line you say when you're going to need to use your Fifth Amendment rights. The setting is Washington, D.C. The setting within the setting soon becomes a hearing room where the powerful Senator Sperling (John Lithgow) is chairing a session. You already know who's on the stand.
The why and how of what got her there start with a mention of complicated shenanigans involving political trips paid for by foreign entities. But before anything is made clear, the film jumps back to three months, one week earlier, when Elizabeth was part a Washington lobbying firm where, under the demanding eyes of her boss (Sam Waterston), she expertly and ruthlessly heads up a team of lobbyists who had better be able to spout off detailed minutia of every account they're working on. If, say, one guy on her team is working on a tax law and doesn't know everything about tax codes, Miss Elizabeth Sloane is going to be unhappy. You don't want to be in the same building with her when she's unhappy.
But she seldom appears to be happy. She's a workaholic, she's hooked on pep pills, which results in her being an insomniac, which is OK because that gives her more time to work. She's very good at what she does, but she has no friends, and her only "social life" exists in the shape of the male escorts she regularly hires to come to her home at night, and to whom she betrays no emotion. (Kudos to Jake Lacey, who plays her main man Forde.)
It's very hard to get a line on this very odd protagonist. Who is she, and why should we care about her? Those answers don't come easy, but again, the wait is worth it. The story goes through some intriguing plot shifts, triggered when a lobbyist comes to her firm with new ideas of getting women on the same side with the pro-gun folks. In a brief moment that shows she has some ethics, she laughs in his face. But her boss, who likes dollar signs more than morality, and doesn't want to lose the account, reads her the riot act. That plot shift involves her jumping to the other side, joining up with the anti-gun folks, and going at the case -- against her former firm -- with even more gusto.
It's here that the film starts jumping around more in time, flashing forward again to the hearing that appears to be about her possibly breaking some senate ethics rules, then back to a few months before the trial, when her former firm is getting ready to tear her down at her new firm, where her new boss (Mark Strong) is impressed by her knowledge, determination, and take-no-prisoners attitude.
Director John Madden is great at keeping the film in development mode, slowly putting together pieces of the story and letting out more about its characters. He's also a true actor's director, making it a showcase for everyone in the cast, yet also keeping Chastain, in a terrific performance, at the center of it all. What's most interesting about Elizabeth is that she isn't the least bit likeable, and is probably the most unsympathetic character Chastain has ever played.
But it's the sharp, smart, tough script (very much like the character of Elizabeth) that's an even bigger winner, and which makes it a challenge to figure out what people, on which side of the issue, are more unscrupulous. Everything leads up to a big, quietly impassioned courtroom speech and then to a crowd-pleaser of an ending. Best of all: Miss Elizabeth Sloane is certainly a character we haven't seen before.
-- Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
Written by Jonathan Perera; directed by John Madden
With Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, John Lithgow, Jake Lacey