The best way to describe The Rhythm Section, Reed Marano’s spy thriller is the perfect start to a television series. As a film it entertains but never amazes, trying to build a story around a conventional revenge plot while clearly trying to service a greater franchise narrative. Marano, who found fame directing the opening episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale but has worked as a cinematographer on the visually impressive Frozen River, gets lost in the buildup, to the point where the film’s conclusion feels like an afterthought, and for such a personal story it makes something important feel somewhat empty.
When Stephanie Patrick’s (Blake Lively) family is murdered in an explosion onboard a plane she was meant to be on she spirals down a rabbit hole of drugs and self-punishment. When a reporter offers he answers to why this horrible crime took place she crawls out of her hole and finds herself learning to become someone else, someone capable of seeking retribution. However, it might mean leaving behind the person she once was, if she can.
Much like Marano’s previous feature, I Think We’re Alone Now, this Mark Burnell (who also wrote the book the film is based on) written film is consumed with looking at identity and the hard to come by sense of self. It smartly opens on a disparity between Stephanie before and after the death of her family. This transformation is startling and it personally invests you, thanks to a committed and different performance by Lively. Despite an at times patchy accent, she manages to add moments of surprise to a film that feels painfully routine at times. Figuring out who Stephanie is, proves to be a saving grace, a sweet note in a film full of sour ones.
However, the real destructive power here is a pacing one as it builds to a payoff but continuously feels like a sequence of false starts. While there is a quiet intensity that carries the plot through a plot-heavy first act, when the world opens up there is a charged energy that feels oddly false. An energised car chase, masked as a single take feels alien to a film consumed with quiet machinations, not loud and proud Bond bravado. Not only does the sequence feel too frenetic and poorly edited but in throwing so much detail at you, you absorb little.
In fact, the film’s conclusion proves to be a mixture of charmless action motifs that despite attention being paid to the grit and grime of the violence being carried out, seems almost generic, not something unexpected and new to a woman trying to find another way to do things. When it takes the time to settle in and appreciate the subtle changes in her character, Morano squanders the limited moments the films rushed conclusion provide.
Here a conclusion feels like a necessity, not something earned or achieved, more something that has to happen for the sake of a sequel. Morano clearly understands Stephanie with time and effort spent developing her style in expansive detail as, a scenery-chewing Jude Law ( as a disenfranchised MI6 castoff) trains her while trying to steal scenes from a grimy and subdued Lively. This middle chapter marches in step with the dreary opening but brightens both the colour palette of the film and Stephanie as a character. In fact, the film thrives off of the Scottish countryside while feeling closed off as it travels the world.
While it is hugely unlikely we will see Lively as Patrick again considering the almost $40 million write-off The Rhythm Section proved to be, it feels like Morano knows how to set up a perfect television adaptation, just one that doesn’t really function as a film.