It’s difficult to categorize the new film Ava, now streaming on Netflix. Sometimes that can bring a positive aspect to the film. An uncharted cinematic territory explored and presented, the use of new techniques visually or in story-telling, all necessitating a creation of a wholly new category of the filmmaking. But that’s not the case with Ava.
On the surface, the film has all the great and entertaining elements of a spy thriller, especially with a female as the central character. Jessica Chastain plays Ava Faulkner, an assassin who works for an unnamed organization (we’re not sure whether it is an organization that works within the confines of a government or as lone mercenaries). She’s given an assignment to eliminate certain people but never given a reason why.
Ava’s a perfect killer. She’s thorough, but asks too many questions, and has too much individuality in the midst of other assassins. Family history has contributed to her being an alcoholic, although she has been sober for some years. Throughout the film, she struggles with the siren call of another glass (or more like, a bottle) of scotch, and this is meant to show some of her rugged personality.
Duke (John Malkovich) is the leader of this obtuse killer organization, who also serves a surrogate father to Ava. Things start to unravel when she barely succeeds in a mission to eliminate another target. It turns out that it wasn’t an accident that she’s almost killed. In fact, she was set up by another man in the organization, Simon (Colin Farrell). It’s not clear why Simon wants Ava removed other than the fact that she appears to be a liability to the organization.
As the “spy story” is unfolding, we witness Ava going back into her past, more precisely back to Boston, where she’s faced with her dismissive mother (Geena Davis) and angry sister (Jess Weixler). Nobody likes Ava and the family’s faulting her for leaving the home abruptly. Adding to the confusion, Ava’s sister is now engaged to Ava’s former boyfriend, who seems to still have feelings for her, but he too was angry that she left, so he chose her sister.
In the meantime, Simon is after Ava, the former boyfriend is a gambling addict, who needs to be saved from Toni (Joan Chen) because he owes her lots of money, her mother is confessing to Ava that she really wasn’t that great of a mother and is convinced Ava will be, and Duke is on the bottom of a lake but manages to send Ava a parting letter.
There’s too much going on in this film. It juggles between a spy thriller (similar to The Bourne Identity series) and drama. It has the potential to be in a similar vein as John Badham’s Point of No Return (1993). Its fast paced movement accompanied by techno beats is barely reminiscent of Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run (1998) but I may be giving Ava too much credit in that vein.
The physical and emotional performance of Chastain is excellent, as well as the performances of Malkovich, Farrell, and Davis. These are actors that already bring a unique presence to the screen no matter what role they might be playing. But they’re not enough to elevate the film into the space in which the audience has the connection to the characters.
There are a few poignant and powerful moments, especially when Ava deals with her addiction. She’s continuously struggling whether to take another drink or not. The scenes aren’t contrived, despite the fact that they’re stylized. In one of those scenes, she orders a double scotch, unaware of any noises that surround her at the bar. She picks up the glass, and sees this glass as a lost lover to the point that she erotically brings it up to her nose, her lips half open, aggressively aiming for the dark elixir to envelop her throat and body. But these struggles are never fully realized, existentially speaking.
That’s the crux of the problem with Ava. It’s devoid of meaning or entertainment. The absence of any definition (indicative of our society’s struggles) is what badly guides the film’s movement. Any filmmaker and writer must make narrative choices, but here no choices were made. The film suffers because it’s not fully a spy thriller nor drama. If the elements of a spy thriller faded into background in order to bring out the humanity and struggles of one woman, the film would’ve had a great impact. Conversely, if dramatic interior life was secondary to the assassin plot, that too would’ve been met with success. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t achieve either.