It isn’t easy to make a truly memorable thriller. As audiences, spoiled by a glut of high quality drama beamed directly into our homes from across the globe, we have grown more sophisticated in our tastes and are wise to the tropes and trickery screenwriters and showrunners employ. A clever director understands the necessity to innovate and move the conversation along. Utilising the twists and turns of traditional thrillers whilst challenging our preconceptions with new faces to guide us on that bumpy ride. John Madden has crafted just such a rollercoaster with his timely political thriller Miss Sloane.
Elizabeth Sloane is composed, talented, fiercely intelligent and unashamedly ambitious. She has tirelessly fought her way to the top of the cutthroat world of professional lobbying and now commands respect and eye watering fees puppeteering politicians at the industry’s cold dead heart; Washington DC. In common with another ruthless lead, Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), she has sacrificed much on her journey to the top. Her closet rattles with the skeletons of outmanoeuvred opponents, stashed alongside the razor-sharp suits and towering stilettos which comprise her daily armour.
Jessica Chastain’s mesmerising performance evokes both the great leading ladies of cinema’s golden age and the breath-taking brutality of our favourite villainous men. She weaponises the presumptions of others - presumptions about her empathy, vulnerability and sense of shame - and deploys them to obliterate her rivals. She uses her striking yet impassive face to mask a cunning, Grandmaster’s mind. Always assessing the most advantageous move, unafraid to let the pawns fall in pursuit of that end game. Elizabeth Sloane confidently takes her place among an elite and growing sisterhood: The Ruthless Leading Ladies.
As is becoming the norm, the small screen was the proving ground for the ruthless woman trend. Fashions begin with an Haute Couture collection whose extremes capture imaginations before they are diluted and trickled down to the mainstream. Television needed a bespoke villainess to overthrow decades of the dominance of man. Greek mythology gave us goddesses of unparalleled cruelty and strength of will. Every bit the equal of the gods they served beside. HBO gave us Cersei Lannister. George RR Martin’s Queen Cersei (as portrayed by Lena Headey) is one of the most divisive characters of modern times. Manipulating, cajoling, bewitching and backstabbing friend and foe alike in pursuit of her goals.
Though severe and often merciless, this triumvirate of leading ladies escape pantomime villainy because ultimately (and this is a credit to the quality of the character building) they remain human, with all the flaws and frailties that state entails. Whenever we catch a glimpse behind the granite wall Elizabeth and her stoic sisters have constructed against the intrusive world, we see the living breathing women who lie beyond it and we can dare to presume that they do feel. Despite all evidence to the contrary. We see that humanity in the tremble which passes through Elizabeth when her private life struts into the courtroom. We see it in Cersei’s collapse after her walk of shame from the Sept of Baelor. And we see it in Claire’s takedown of President Petrov in the wake of Michael Corrigan’s suicide.
Yet Miss Sloane, The First Lady and Queen Cersei are beautiful, what are we to make of that? How much can the industry have truly evolved if aesthetics still dominate casting? Undoubtedly we still have far to go in that regard. Nevertheless, beauty can be subverted. Gone Girl played deftly with lazy preconceptions when it used Amy Dunne's (Rosamund Pike) unreliable narration to mislead audiences and her pretty face to enchant and sell us on her lies. But beneath the surface grace Amazing Amy's soul is a writhing snake pit of entitlement, resentment and fury. We never entirely know or understand who Amy is, or what she needs, she remains half a dozen stealthy steps ahead of her husband and those of us shadowing them until the bitter end.
Our other ruthless women share Amy's ability to see the panorama of the bigger picture and hide behind an enigmatic smile. Miss Sloane is strategic and unafraid of the collateral damage her colleagues and reputation will suffer as she pursues her goal, she uses her face and employs silence and impassivity as another tool to disarm . This is intriguing for us to witness because we are still predisposed to assign empathy and altruism as driving forces for women on film. History has reinforced this message so often it has gradually become our default setting. This unconscious default is one of the reasons House of Cards’ Claire Underwood shocks us when she schemes. The most impactful evidence of her ruthlessness was in the serenity of her face as she explained to fellow water activist Gillian that she will sever her health coverage - so her baby withers and die inside her - should Gillian continue with court action against her.
Just a few scenes earlier we had been lulled into assuming that Claire is haunted by her childless state. Another presupposition that lazy TV tropes (and the stereotypes of wider society) have trained us to expect. Instead she was researching this revenge and arming herself with the information to destroy her target. Like Elizabeth, her vulnerability is simply a disguise she wears. A disguise which fools her marks (and us, by extension) time and time again. We search for redeeming features in our protagonists. The good guy (or good gal) has always been the character we expect to find as our guide through a thriller or courtroom drama. There was a comfort in knowing who to root for - which side to cheer on - and it wrong-foots us when we find ourselves shaking pom poms for the bad guys by mistake.
So let us make no mistake here, it is time to give a cheer for the ruthless leading ladies. They confound us with their strategising, misdirect us with their cunning and horrify us with their callousness. And we wouldn’t have it any other way. A new era of unforgettable thrillers is upon us - thanks to these dastardly dames - one in which we longer know who to trust. All we can do is entrust them with our desire to be entertained. And comfort ourselves with the knowledge that these dastardly dames can do everything the bad guys of cinema past did...but backwards and in heels.
Miss Sloane is available on Digital Download, Blu-ray and DVD now.
Tagged in Jessica Chastain