Director: Tate Taylor
Producer: Nicolas Chartier, Dominic Rustam, Jessica Chastain, Kelly Carmichael
Writer: Matthew Newton
Cast: Jessica Chastain, John Malkovich, Common, Geena Davis, Colin Farrell, Ioan Gruffudd, Joan Chen
Streaming Platform: Netflix
Anthony Lane, the New Yorker film critic described Tenet’s inability to give its suave, swaggering characters a back-story as “trading of personal history for present cool”. Ava embodies the opposite. Having spent the first half hour establishing its heroine Ava (Jessica Chastain) as this gritty globe-trotting assassin, it then saddles her with a backstory of alcoholism, drug abuse, a frayed relationship with her father, and an uneasy tension with her sister’s boyfriend. You wish the film stayed with her bravado, seducing and reducing men to tatters in a high-slit, low-cut red dress, the dangling diamonds on her ears intact as she guns down Germans in Saudi Arabia. The film reduces her from sexy to simper within a matter of moments, and the death knell is rung.
Ava stands in dire opposition to Tenet in another sense- by refusing to get into who she is working for, trading that story in for her own sob-story back-story. This is not to say that a heroine with a back-story is undesirable, but it seems there is a tendency to mistake a back-story for chinks in the armoury. The whole reason for getting into her history is to explain that despite it, she triumphed, and because of it, she might relapse. Her history is dangled only to establish the possibility for her future failure, and this shows in the lazily articulated dialogues designed only for exposition.
The lack of clarity on her job irks on more than one level. She is often asked to assassinate people without knowing what they did to deserve this violence, trusting blindly the motive for murder. She indulges the person she is about to murder for a moment- asking what they did to deserve it. She never gets the answer, but all we are told is that asking this question itself is not allowed. The upper echelons of this workplace is beyond the scope of this film, and thus shrouds its foot-soldiers like Ava in incompleteness.
Ava returns to Boston for a breather between her assignments, and here her relationship with her family is foregrounded between blood-soaked punch-dunk violences. There is a beautiful possibility of a character in her mother- a woman who has suffered a cardiac arrest but insists on being moisturized, with deep red lipstick as she recovers in the hospital. Vanity is all she can hold onto. This opportunity is squandered by the narrative. Guilt is pushed along, character to character, like a game of pass-the-parcel. Everyone is guilting and guilty and every instance of it is captioned with alarming obviousness. One gets a sense of Ava’s moral malleability- bending rules of good and bad as and when her hormones dictate. This fallibility could be human, but by framing it within her bravado, it only feels like an excuse for her to unravel. The violence, initially awesome, soon begins to border on the tiresome. The punches she gives and gets are not gendered, and this is a nice corrective to the genre. (It is often odd how in films the punch to and by the woman always feels less violent, more accommodating. Here the punches aren’t pulled.) The narrative keeps busy, introducing new entanglements, which feel less and less believable, but the business keeps the narrative from falling off entirely. But even while the film never tanks, it also never soars beyond that initial promise of adrenaline.