As “Miss Sloane,” Jessica Chastain wears blood-red lipstick over the palest of masks of makeup.
Stiletto heels have never seem more aptly-named.
Her dresses and stockings are in commanding shades of black.
She rattles off long, discursive riffs about her work, her methods, her commitment and her cause. She relates homilies, jeremiads, aphorisms and maxims — her every sentence a lecture to proteges, employers, employees and Senators.
She never raises her voice, but she doesn’t so much talk as bark, bite and thunder.
And as D.C.’s more feared lobbyist, when Miss Sloane barks, bites and thunders, the whole Hill listens.
“Miss Sloane” is a Capital Hill tale in the “State of Play/House of Cards” mold, a melodramatic thriller more realistic than “Scandal,” slightly less riveting than “Scandal.”
And Chastain (“The Martian,””The Help”) towers over it like a colossus, delivering a performance of intimidating power if not righteous rage. “Rage” implies that her character, who leaves the top lobbying firm in town for a “boutique” operation trying to pass a gun control law, loses her cool.
And Miss Sloane NEVER loses her cool.
Though she does burst out laughing at the pitch from the not-the-NRA, that “women” are a problem for the merchants of American-style mass murder and that there’s some foolish, obvious way they can be manipulated into switching sides from the defenders of their version of the Second Amendment, and the church and school shooters who are their real legacy and constituency.
If Sloane’s sudden decision to switch sides seems abrupt, maybe it’s because she’s already calculated the upside, five moves down the board. Or maybe, everyone wonders, “you knew someone” or has some other connection to gun violence.
And Miss Sloane isn’t telling.
Sam Waterston is her thoroughly compromised ex-boss, Michael Stuhlbarg her venomous ex-colleague and Allison Pill her put-upon and resentful ex-protege, people more than happy to take the not-the-NRA’s money to hand Sloane her head.
But she’s in their heads and one step ahead, so in control she never sleeps, popping pills to keep her heart pumping and her head sharp. Love? Never time for that, though she does avail herself of D.C. escort services (Jake Lacy) when the urge arises.
Even her new colleagues (Mark Strong, Gugu Mbatha-Raw) are more apalled than impressed.
“You’re a piece of work, Miss Sloane.”
Even those encounters have a brittle chill, a paranoid suspicion.
The overarching Big Idea in this John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love,””Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”) film is that a woman who can get things done in this “rotten” system is almost automatically dislikable, wearing her power like warpaint, her “arrogance” like a shield. Yeah, we’re meant to ID Sloane’s political analogues in our own head.
When she goes to war with “the most feared lobby in Washington,” the gun lobby, she knows to “be one step ahead” of the opposition, to have her people do your homework,” to suspect everyone’s motives and loyalties and to have her “trump card” in place, well in advance.
“In this town, no matter where you are,” she lectures, “you’re more than two feet from a rat.”
The slashes of melodrama are a closer to the soapy intrigues of TV’s “Scandal” than one would like. The story arc builds to the sort of confrontation that, since “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” only happens in movies about Washington.
And if you don’t think the subject matter is explosive — guns, gun violence and the hypocrisy and big money that ensure it remains a problem America alone among the world’s democracies just cannot seem to solve — read the laughable “goofs” in the plot posted on the Internet Movie Database. They seem vetted and posted by an NRA lobbyist.
But Chastain? She is fiercely deserving of all the awards’ season praise this performance is generating. There’s an Oscar nomination in this performance and this character. Sloane is fierce, from her first introduction to her final bow. Everything about the character is calculating, from her wardrobe and to every overly self-confident word out of her calculating mouth.
Yeah, you’d want her on your side. Not for her warmth or commitment to the cause. You want her on your side because fighting someone like her is a far scarier thought than having to work with her.
MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexuality
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, John Lithgow, Michael Stuhlbarg, Sam Waterston, Allison Pill, Jake Lacy
Credits:Directed by John Madden, script by Jonathan Perera. A Europa release.
Running time: 2:12