The Rhythm Section
Reed Morano has been hailed in recent years as the up-and-coming director. She broke her teeth on television, winning a promising Emmy for directing an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale (2017-), but her forays into feature films have not been as up to expectations. She handled herself decently in the small-budget I Think We’re Alone Now (2018), but her quiet character study frequently drifted into boredom. Her first studio film is the much-delayed The Rhythm Section (2020), and it doesn’t look like it will help Morano’s directing credibility either.
The Rhythm Section is adapted from the famed novel of the same name that spawned a series of books in the early 2000s. The film is an adaptation from the first book, following Stephanie (Blake Lively) a broken girl in London who’s haunted by the tragic death of her two siblings and parents in a plane accident. She’s drawn out of her life of drugs and prostitution when a reporter (Raza Jaffrey) seeks her out and tells her that the plane accident might have been a planted bomb. This prompts Stephanie to step into an espionage world to avenge her family.
The book was adapted by its own author, Mark Burnell. This choice of the same author adapting from page to screen has worked sometimes (Gillian Flynn in Gone Girl (2013)), but it’s not always the case. Writing a book and writing a screenplay are two very different things. Burnell’s adaptation seems to be taking for granted viewers’ knowledge of certain things. As such there are frequent leaps in character interactions and decisions that viewers are just forced to go along with. This causes for certain twists and turns to come out of nowhere and frankly seem rather unimportant due to their lack of build-up. Burnell’s inability to show character progression here, also results in rather throw-away revelations that are key to understanding certain characters. The film suffers from rushing and jumping through key moments, but at the same time is taking too long to reach action sequences. This causes the entire first half to feel like an empty shell of a film, only slightly filled by the presence of a stellar Lively.
Blake Lively has been relegated to teen-targeted films ever since she graduated from Gossip Girl (2007-2012). This has led to some fun, but mostly forgettable films that haven’t been able to fully exploit her talent. Already in films such as A Simple Favor (2018) and The Shallows (2016), she showed a bubbling talent that was bursting to get out. The Rhythm Section certainly gives Lively a new tone to play with, and she absolutely carries the entire film on her back. However, even with this much darker and challenging role, Lively still feels constrained. This is great news as it shows that she is bursting to do even more, however, she is having rotten luck at clicking with a good role.
Morano is able to lend a much more original take to this film than the script had otherwise provided. Her directing style seems to fit perfectly with the thriller genre, as her ability to position viewers in the claustrophobic perspective of a character is put to effective use. The action scenes and moments of tension seem to pop out all the more, especially with a rather breathtaking car chase scene in Tangiers, done as if in a single take. Morano is not afraid of long takes for her fight scenes, which allow a certain fluidity and cohesion to come about with the fight choreography. However, this extra spice is not nearly enough to salvage the rather uninteresting mapping that Burnell had wrought in his script.
In the end, the film has an incredible array of elements going for it, from an intriguing source material, to a magnetic lead, and an inventive and talented director. However, the big mistake here was in getting the unexperienced Burnell to adapt his own novel, which resulted in a rather stale, confusing, and unimpactful narrative that bogged all of the emotions and thrills of this flick.