Tate Taylor is known for directing emotional and psychological dramas such as THE HELP (2011), THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (2016), and MA (2019). With AVA (2020), he has decidedly brought that delicate and perspicacious touch to a spy thriller starring Jessica Chastain and written by Matthew Newton. While Taylor’s film doesn’t exactly set the genre ablaze with any particular unique choreography or action scenes, what sets AVA apart from any other female driven spy thriller a la David Leitch’s ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) or Phillip Noyce’s SALT (2010),is the film’s unflinching deep dive into the protagonist’s personal life, psychology, and relationships; a seemingly unimportant decision, but one that certainly finds payoff with fans of emotional dramas.
When mercenary Ava (Jessica Chastain) returns home for much needed rest, she finds her mother (Geena Davis) hospitalized and her family still very much embroiled within the drama she thought she left behind. Meanwhile, her executive handler, Duke (John Malkovich) strives to protect Ava from Simon (Colin Farrell), the “company’s” head, after it’s proven she’s become unstable once again. With a cast of this caliber, each performance is expectedly brilliant, but what raises the bar is the tongue-in-cheek dialogue, which remarkably does not come off cheesy; moments where Malkovich and Davis shine, and Chastain holds her own.
While some critics have arguably called the plot cliché and the action sequences unimpressive, AVA finds strength in its quiet, character -driven moments; proof that a lesser cast might have turned out a much more disappointing product. That is not to say, however, that the film is completely without style. While the camera movement during choreography is, for the most part, a simple pan and cut technique, there are few exceptions that shine , particularly a well-placed overhead shot during an especially visceral and wrenching scene. Where cinematography seems to falter under tired color and lighting schemes, as well, set decoration comes to the rescue. The obligatory nightclub fight scene within the genre makes its appearance, and is decorated accordingly, but again, it’s in those invited moments into the characters’ homes and habitus that viewers see and experience the film at its fullest and most lavish.
AVA’s slow beginning as a run of the mill spy thriller will leave fans of emotional dramas satisfied by the film’s end, but may leave hardcore action seekers hungry for more. What keeps this piece afloat are the strong and intelligent performances within a familiar concept and genre. The plot is simple, but forgivingly so when it comes to the character study that the film embarks upon. The action scenes have been viewed a million times in a million other films, but AVA succeeds in giving its protagonist much deserved and very real backstory and psychology, which has not been seen a million times.