Powerful women make people uneasy. Some think powerful women should be locked up. The title D.C. lobbyist in John Madden’s “Miss Sloane” (note the condescending “Miss”) is one such powerful woman. She’s so powerful she even makes herself uneasy. Maybe she thinks she should be locked up as well.
Played by Jessica Chastain, Elizabeth Sloane dresses in variations of black and wears vampiric red lipstick and stiletto heels. She swears like a drill sergeant and is so convoluted in her treacherous ambition that she would appall Machiavelli. Sloane is, as more than one character describes her, “a piece of work.”
Unlike her CIA operative in “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012), where she evolves into a formidable, even ruthless agent, here Chastain puts on the persona like it’s a superhero costume. It is an awkward fit. Madden’s stagy direction doesn’t help (he’s perhaps best known for “Shakespeare in Love” and the “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” movies), nor does first-time writer Jonathan Perera’s pseudo-Sorkinesque, exposition-laden, quippy dialogue.
Her methods apparently do not serve her well, however, as the film opens with her being cross-examined in a Senate hearing. It then flashes back to the start of the story, when Sloane gleefully is directing a crew of youthful minions in their campaign to woo a senator into backing a bill favoring the Indonesian palm oil industry. Impressed, her reptilian boss George Dupont (Sam Waterston) wants her to take the account of an NRA shill who wants to kill a gun control bill that looks like it might succeed in passing.
As if. Here we venture into the world of fantasy, and no more credible is Sloane’s sudden embrace of idealistic principles. She scoffs at the NRA blowhard, jumps ship, and joins forces with a “boutique” lobbying firm supporting the bill. There she employs the same twisted stratagems, causing her new boss, the earnest, oddly named Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong), to ruefully and with begrudging admiration shake his head and ask, “Were you ever normal?”
That’s just the premise, so fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride (“All about Eve” is one of the more unlikely movies alluded to). Madden and Perera have saved up enough double and triple crosses and neck-snapping plot twists to supply a miniseries. It answers most questions by the end, except the most important one: Is the devil in Miss Sloane, or is Miss Sloane the devil?
Directed by John Madden. Written by Jonathan Perera. Starring Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Sam Waterston. At Kendall Square. 132 minutes. R (language and some sexuality).