Before the quarter-hour mark in Miss Sloane, I found myself shifting in my seat and sighing deeply. Was it really going to take another two hours before this obnoxious Washington lobbyist got her well-deserved comeuppance? That little knot of tension in my stomach was not so much the thrill created by well-manufactured suspense as the dread engendered by less-than-tragic inevitability. Played by Jessica Chastain with an icy blast so chilling you half expect her supporting cast to turn up wearing fur, ace lobbyist Elizabeth Sloane is superior, sarcastic and unfeeling – but mainly she's guilty of climbing while female. Hollywood knows that women will always pay for their ambition.
As the movie business searches about for more female-friendly approaches to storytelling genres traditionally built around male action, it occasionally hits on this imperfect solution, casting a flawed female protagonist or dastardly lady villain in such recent efforts as the revisionist fairy tale Maleficent, the political drama Our Brand Is Crisis or the financial thriller Equity.
Here, in a political thriller written by newcomer Jonathan Perera and directed by veteran John Madden, the effect is so overwrought it's almost laughable. Elizabeth Sloane is not merely more ruthless than any man in Washington, she is also scrubbed of any obvious humanity; she knows no morals nor humour and finds her own appetites inconvenient. She spends her days spying on her rivals, besting her colleagues and barking at her juniors before shovelling down dinner in a Chinese dive and mounting a male escort in a swank hotel. If she has any home other than that hotel room, we don't see it – apart from one glimpse of a closet full of power suits. Of course, this ice maiden is going to shatter: Sloane is popping too many uppers and creating too many enemies as she climbs.
If she's a cliché, Perera's plot is at least satisfyingly clever: having laughed in the face of the gun lobby, Sloane is offered a job by a gun-control advocacy group and so puts her unethical skills to work for an ethical cause. But as the movie busily debates means and ends, Perera and Madden borrow heavily from the Aaron Sorkin-Thomas Schlamme formula of rapid-fire dialogue delivered in walk-and-talk scenes – Miss Sloane issues orders; Miss Sloane plots strategies – and the effect is never as fast, furious nor funny as any old episode of The West Wing.
In an appearance that owes a lot to her colleagues in hair, makeup and wardrobe, the beautiful Chastain – the sleek black dresses skimming her figure; the red hair so consistently shading the right side of her face – delivers a performance, rather than a character, that is brittle. Indeed, she speaks her lines with such an air of removal that she regularly misses the zingers, creating the impression of a woman who is not only emotionally dead but reading from a Teleprompter into the bargain.
And then, at the end of all this, there is a clever surprise, a brilliant twist – or what would be a brilliant twist if Sloane were a recognizable character. Sure, Hollywood movies are stuffed with limp and unnecessary backstories – perhaps Perera should be lauded for creating a figure who never blames a childhood spent in poverty or a brutal professional initiation for her steep career path – but Sloane is so simplistically sketched that her final move just appears implausibly unmotivated; the character is given precisely one line to explain what she has done.
Miss Sloane is a powerfully conceived thriller with something dead at its centre: there is no reason a female protagonist must be good or well-behaved, but she must at least be interesting.