From the Archives: The Rhythm Section is a grungy thriller that pulls no punches

From the Archives: The Rhythm Section is a grungy thriller that pulls no punches

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

The title The Rhythm Section refers to a piece of advice given to our heroine as she trains to become an assassin. You see, when a contract killer is preparing to pull the trigger, there are many ways that her body can betray her. As such, the hitwoman should regard her involuntary physical processes as the sections of a band. Her heartbeat is the rhythm section. Her breathing is the bass line. And…well, that’s kind of the end of the metaphor as it were. It’s a weird choice for the writers to leave this incomplete, because it’s exactly the type of MI6 fortune cookie wisdom that gives flavor to thrillers such as this one, where classy ideas are given the chance to dance alongside ethical murkiness—Yeah, James Bond might have left literal hundreds of corpses in his wake, but he did so with the class and precision of a finely tuned orchestra. The Rhythm Section is decidedly grimier than a Bond movie (although it is also made by EON Productions), with the subversion of classy spy material being its biggest selling point, but if you’re going to use the musical metaphor as your title, it’s probably best to not accidentally reduce the classical orchestra contained within to a drum and bass outfit.

This incomplete feeling permeates the entirety of The Rhythm Section, but not so much that it sinks the film. In fact, once the viewer finds its wavelengths, there’s a solid, intense little thriller with a hardcore edge that glosses over many of the apparent narrative issues.


Blake Lively plays Stephanie, a young woman whose entire family has died in an airline accident. While the details aren’t made clear until much later, it’s obvious at the outset that Stephanie was supposed to be on the doomed flight, but opted out at the last minute. Now, as a shell of the woman she once was, she’s shooting dope and turning tricks in a state of depressive detachment. That is, until an intrepid journalist springs some upsetting news on her. He believes that the catastrophic mechanical failure which killed her family was actually the result of a bomb…and he knows exactly who built it.

Before long, Stephanie’s thirst for vengeance eclipses her desire to fade away, and she finds herself in the care of a mysterious former spy (Jude Law) simply referred to as “B”. Together, across the span of a few montages, they work to turn Stephanie into a killing machine—a killing machine with nothing left to lose.

The Rhythm Section plays as a sort of mix between two very underseen and underrated thrillers of recent memory: Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer and Francis Lawrence’s Red Sparrow. The hardcore, pull-no-punches tone of the former meets the “give yourself over to the mission” thematics of the latter. It’s a fantastic combination of presumed influences, but that isn’t to say that the film lacks an identity of its own. Director Reed Morano pulls no punches in her depiction of a woman being drawn away from her self-imposition on the fringes of society and toward a world of murder-for-hire and soul-usurping vengeance. Credit is due as well to Lively, who is barely recognizable in this supremely physical role, and not just because she’s frequently wearing disguises. Hers is a tremendously upsetting performance, and it’s one the requires her not to coast on star power.

This is a startlingly bleak film from the get go, and this bleakness never lets up. Morano dips in and out of a handheld style, never using it to hide the action as so many filmmakers do nowadays. In fact, this device is mostly used to represent the mental and physical state of our protagonist. As she becomes stronger and more able, so too does the camerawork become more formal. That said, the shaky cam is indeed sometimes employed during action sequences, but never is a stunt obscured. A mid-film fight scene is shot entirely handheld, but the combatants (Law and Lively) are not hidden amidst the calamity. I get the sense that they each did a large portion of their own stunts, and it would be a disservice to both to hide this fact. Especially since the choreography is not heightened for style like in John Wick or Atomic Blonde. Nope, these fights are brutal and sloppy in the best of ways. It feels real.


A downside of this is the fact that it all feels so physically genuine that when certain unrealities rear their heads it’s much more noticeable. For example, Stephanie’s training/withdrawal period is said to be eight months, but this time is not felt, and by the time she’s out on the street taking murder contracts, it doesn’t feel like she’s the stone cold assassin the film wants us to believe she is. And really, almost every one of her successes, as depicted, is mostly the result of luck. If the “reveal” I was expecting to occur did indeed occur, this would make sense. But it doesn’t, so it doesn’t. That said, there is indeed a reveal that is just as obvious and ultimately disappointing.

That’s the name of the game really. Every aspect of The Rhythm Section comes close to greatness and then falls frustratingly short. There’s the unfinished titular metaphor, a stunning faux-single take car chase that would be transcendent but for its visible seams, and a collection of strong performances (Sterling K. Brown!) all in service of somewhat underwritten characters. The whole time watching the movie I thought “this has got to be based on a book,” and as it turns out, it is. It’s probably a good book too.

Overall, the grungy, hard-edged nature of the film worked for me. It’s not often that we get to see a leading actress eschew glamour like this, and effectively so. It’s even less often that we see material like this placed in the hands of a female filmmaker. Morano and Lively have the potential to be a devastating combination of talent, and we see shades of it here. While it is indeed frustrating to watch a film so regularly flirt with greatness and not clear the bar, how many films even get that high? The Rhythm Section, for all its flaws, is a total banger.

The Rhythm Section opens in Philly theaters today.

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