January is an interesting time in the cinematic year, often seeing the release of films that studios either don’t have much faith in or consider risky for one reason or another. The Rhythm Section, the latest action thriller from director Reed Morano, seems to fit that bill insofar as it feels like an anti-thriller in a number of ways. It shares some DNA with films like The Bourne Identity or even some of the recent James Bond movies, but ultimately it is far less flashy than either. The Rhythm Section has a lot going for it, even though it’s a bit more challenging and asks a little more from its audience than most mainstream action movies.
Blake Lively plays Stephanie Patrick, a bright young woman whose life has been destroyed by a recent trauma— her entire immediate family was killed in a plane crash, and she has reasons to blame herself for their deaths. Though she was once at the top of her class, she has declined to the point that she’s a heroin addict and prostitute when we meet her at the beginning of this film. When she’s approached by a journalist claiming to have proof that the plane crash was secretly an act of terror, she decides to pursue the aggressors involved.
One thing The Rhythm Section asks of its viewers is simply to take the chance on seeing an action movie that doesn’t have huge action stars attached to it. Blake Lively and Jude Law are certainly big names, but they are not necessarily associated with this genre. Both give strong performances here. The director is a bit of a risk as well; Reed Morano doesn’t have much name recognition for general audiences at this point. She’s been working as a cinematographer for many years but this is only her third feature film. Many viewers (including myself) will be most familiar with Morano’s recent work on the show The Handmaid’s Tale, where she helped develop the show’s signature visual style.
Because of Morano’s keen eye for visuals, it’s unsurprising that the cinematography is one of The Rhythm Section’s biggest strengths. Though it doesn’t feature a bold color scheme like The Handmaid’s Tale, there are some visual similarities between the two. Ultimately, The Rhythm Section has a much more naturalistic style, and it employs some of the “shaky cam” that the Jason Bourne films are known for, though it looks a good deal better than anything in that series. The Rhythm Section is visually beautiful without feeling “slick” like many modern action movies do. There are also some stunning wide shots in the film, including one early on that depicts Lively as a tiny speck on a seemingly endless Scottish road, an effective way to visually communicate her state of loneliness and isolation and the difficult journey she has ahead.
Another strength of The Rhythm Section is its feminist touches. It never beats viewers over the head or tries to be a “girl power” movie (in the way that something like last year’s Charlie’s Angels did), but through Stephanie’s believably-depicted journey from addict to functioning adult to amateur assassin, the film shows how she uses femininity to her advantage, but also how she deals with a world that isn’t kind to women. In the scene when she first meets Jude Law’s character, she is overpowered and physically intimidated by his imposing presence. Morano chooses to shoot that scene entirely from Stephanie’s perspective, showing a faceless aggressor intentionally using his body to belittle her, and keeping the vantage point low to the ground right alongside Stephanie’s crouching, injured body. It’s an incredibly sympathetic way to shoot action.
And then there’s the powerful moment when she is forced to swim across the nearby lake, and we see her emaciated, drug-addicted body dressed in ratty underwear in an extended shot as she enters the water. Lively uses her physicality to great effect in this film and that scene is striking for the way it draws us into Stephanie’s misery. It’s also a testament to Morano’s direction that the moment isn’t lecherous—for all of Blake Lively’s sex appeal in other roles, and even later in this film, the swimming scene rightly disallows the audience from gazing sexually at her. That’s another thing that will likely make this movie a tough sell for general audiences, though it’s key to understanding this character and feels like an ethical choice on the part of the director. Morano forces us to see Stephanie as a real, complete person and not a sexual object.
After Stephanie has successfully transformed into a secret agent, there are times that she carries out parts of her missions in ways that only a woman could, disguising herself as a high-end prostitute in one scene and flirting with her informant in another. There’s also a key moment when a man is denying a request of hers and a woman steps in to remedy the situation. Again, none of these moments are flashy and they come up organically in the story. The script is not without its issues though, and in the second half, there are a handful of surprises that play out to varying effect. There’s a reveal near the movie’s ending, for example, at the home of Sterling K. Brown’s Mark character that is so underplayed it’s actually quite underwhelming, as well as a bit confusing.
Despite its flaws, The Rhythm Section is a worthy film that stands as a more challenging, more rewarding counterpoint to most mainstream thrillers. It’s a story about PTSD and addiction first and foremost, and it refuses to conform to action movie stereotypes in its second half. It’s the anti-Jason Bourne for the way its lead largely stumbles her way through missions and for the importance it places on her mental and physical wellbeing throughout. And it’s the feminist Jason Borne—consistently showing Stephanie’s plight as a woman in the world as well as depicting her femininity as an advantage. Time will tell whether The Rhythm Section performs well enough financially for a franchise, but if it does I hope it’s sequels stay grounded in the parts of this film that work, because so much of it does.