Some movies are hard to watch because they’re just made so poorly. You know the ones. Where the simple act of attempting to engage with it on any level feels like pushing through a bead curtain made of dangling handsaws. But then others are hard to watch in the way of The Rhythm Section, a film categorically uninterested in being interesting.
This is despite the best efforts of Blake Lively in the lead as Stephanie Patrick, a woman seeking first the truth of and then vengeance for the death of her parents and siblings. Though the transitions of her character are presented largely as nonsensical, she pulls portrays them believably. As in if the movie did a better job of explaining how an inscrutably haughty middle-class woman turned to heroin and sex work and then assassinations, then you might even be inclined to believe she was the same character and not someone in a series of skits.
It’s worth mentioning, too, that Jude Law also does an admirable job keeping the ship afloat, though it seems more for his own pleasure than anything else. He plays B, an ex-spy who also has personal ties to the plane crash that killed Stephanie’s family, so when she shows up asking to be trained in the ways of cloak and daggers, he has no reason to say no. And Law seems like he’s genuinely having fun being an irrepressible grump of the Scottish woods who can also kick lots of ass.
You’ll notice, though, that despite being a recluse in a cabin, he is styled like a catalog model. It appears to be a consequence of the film being produced by the same company and people behind the James Bond franchise where spies are both impossibly dapper and impossibly capable. Which is fine in terms of aesthetics and philosophy, but it does, unfortunately, calls to mind an instinctive comparison to 007, a matchup that this movie falls short of in every possible way.
The quippy exchanges are instead a jumble of words. Extravagant action is replaced by poorly composed shots smashed against the requisite exotic locales. The sartorial flair is imperceptible alongside the dour and muted milieu and absolutely bonkers conversational closeups. All it can evoke is a meandering thought of when is that Cary Fukunaga coming out.
Some of it seems to be a consequence of Morano’s pre-director career as a cinematographer. She has a habit in this film of choosing interesting composition in the frame over coherence of the story, intuition of the staging, and motivations of the characters. Several exchanges are exercises in deciphering eyelines and maintaining sanity rather than exploring the drama of the narrative.
To be fair to the action, though, Stephanie isn’t supposed to be good at fighting. Or at least not yet masterful, so seeing her crash and careen through some of the extended one-take sequences is fairly intriguing. A lot of it harbors the worst habits of the Greengrass Bourne films, but the relative ambition of doing it all in a (faux) single take is a refreshing changeup from the rest of the flat, uninspired, confounding runtime.
But let’s not forget the soundtrack. It is either hilariously and absurdly on-the-nose or bafflingly mismatched. The former feels like the result of a blissfully unaware hand while the latter feels like a misguided attempt at artistic juxtaposition (think about the dearth of action-heavy video games with trailers featuring mournful covers of well-known songs). It is a complete aural fumble.
The Rhythm Section is not a good movie. But it is a very specific kind of Not Good. It is a miasma of befuddling decisions, almost as if it were an academic study in how subtle changes can take mediocrity to borderline unbearable tosh. But the problem is the opposite can be true; those same subtle changes could amount to a magnificent metamorphosis. But not here. Not even close.
Final Score: 4 out of 10