The long piss goodnight
The whole Jessica Chastain thing didn’t turn out the way we’d hoped, huh? A decade ago, she rocketed to stardom seemingly overnight thanks to plum roles in powerhouse projects like “The Tree Of Life” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” Nowadays she’s delivering terrible turns in bargain bin dross like “X-Men: Dark Phoenix” and the truly inexplicable AVA, which is such listless VOD junk the only surprise is that Bruce Willis isn’t in it. To watch it is to be astonished that this is somehow a major production with a studio director and a famous cast, despite the script feeling like a pilot for a USA Network show from the nineties and a cheapo aesthetic to match.
Chastain plays a spectacularly unconvincing international assassin struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction brought on by remorse over the countless men she’s killed. Her handler, played by John Malkovich in full paycheck mode, is concerned she’s cracking up again so he sends her back to Boston for a less-than-therapeutic visit with her dysfunctional family. She’s got a sickly, sadistic mother (Geena Davis) and still can’t get over that her boyfriend (Common, a bad actor) ran off with her folk musician sister (Jess Weixler, even worse). So after an action movie opening, “Ava” becomes a crummy sibling rivalry soap opera for a little while.
You can imagine director Tate Taylor (who somehow scored Chastain an Oscar nomination for “The Help”) selling his cast on the hospital bedside histrionics adding character development to what started as a sexy shoot ‘em up. The problem is that the overwrought acting is even worse than the amateurish action sequences, which are all photographed too close and cut together poorly with chintzy post-production slow-motion effects. I suppose we should all be grateful that nobody attempts a Boston accent, but the movie makes such little use of the location that if you told me it had been filmed in Toronto I’d believe you.
There’s such a flat, visual indifference to “Ava” I found it actively bothersome to watch. Cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt previously shot action classics like the first two “Lethal Weapon” pictures and has worked with directors Alan J. Pakula and Mike Nichols, yet somehow this picture looks like a sitcom. There’s no texture to any of the images, just blocky medium shots and shadowless overhead lighting. I thought the whole point of making movies about leggy female assassins in evening gowns was to provide a little eye candy, but “Ava” can’t even find a flattering angle on any of the beautiful actresses in this cast. I know not even Luc Besson really knows how to make Luc Besson movies anymore, but at least he can still photograph women.
This lazy anonymity applies to the writing as well, with Colin Farrell betraying Malkovich and Chastain for no real reason besides the screenplay requiring conflict. Farrell’s always fun to watch but this is such a boring, generic bad guy role, even the costumes have no definition and leave you wondering why his character would have the same crazy haircut the actor wore in “The Gentlemen” earlier this year.
I used to get really angry about movies like this but now they just make me sad. Think of all the time and resources squandered on such baseline incompetence, with nobody in front of or behind the camera giving even the slightest impression of effort. Some movies are so bad they’re good. “Ava” is so bad it’s depressing.•••
Over the past two decades, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.