A Stellar Cast Deliver on a Lack-Luster Script in Ava

Image Courtesy of Netflix 

When I first came across Ava while browsing Netflix last week, I was excited. A spy thriller featuring Common, John Malkovich, and Colin Farrell sounds like a delightful, action packed watch. Unfortunately, the films cast turned out to be the only reason for excitement. Directed by Tate Taylor, Ava tells the story of an assassin named, you guessed it, Ava (Jessica Chastain) who is forced to take a leave of absence after a job gone wrong makes her enemies. She heads home to be close to the family she abandoned when she started this life, and to protect them from a threat coming their way. As the plot leading up to Ava’s botched mission unfolds, Ava is shown to be highly unstable, struggling with sobriety and the moral weight of her work. What is intended to be a film showing Ava reconnecting with her family, and highlighting her moral struggles ends up being a decent spy action thriller with attempts at emotional beats throughout that fall short.

This movie is ostensibly about family, and the emotional wounds they can cause that often go unaddressed. Ava’s mother Bobbi (Geena Davis) consistently makes passive aggressive comments toward both Ava and her sister Judy (Jess Weixler). Judy does the same thing to Ava throughout, as both are angry that she left them for 8 years following the trouble she got herself into. This theme continues between Ava’s boss Simon (Colin Farrell) and his two daughters, one of which is very young and the other is a member of the agency he runs. Although these attempts to incorporate larger themes show the film was trying to do something deeper than a rote action movie, they never truly feel emotionally resonant. There is not a likable protagonist in the bunch, and although a character doesn’t need to be likable to be interesting, the characters don’t develop enough over the course of the movie to justify their unlikability at the beginning.

Image Courtesy Netflix

Perhaps being aware of this, the film makers attempt to insert a new plot point in the middle of the movie, which ultimately feels shoehorned in there to add some more spy movie vibes. When Ava returns home, she is reunited with Michael (Common), Judy’s fiancĂ©e who has a gambling problem (one which Judy entirely enables, but the film didn’t seem interested in exploring that). Ava is pushed into rescuing Michael from some trouble he gets himself into with underworld gambling circles, at the same time Ava’s enemies are closing in around her. Despite some pretty cool spy elements and action scenes, this portion of the movie feels entirely forced in, perhaps to add some excitement to the scenes where Ava is trying to patch things up with her family.

One of the most interesting moments in the whole film happens between Simon and his daughter Camille (Diana Silvers). Simon has a younger daughter who is only in the film for a few seconds, but Camille makes a point of mentioning that they are only half siblings with a resentful tone. Simon for his part tells his younger daughter that he doesn’t want his children in the field, particular women, next to Camille. This moment of tension was one of the most interesting in the whole movie and is immediately dropped from the film entirely.

However strange the writing, there were wonderful performances from the actors. Colin Farrell did a wonderful job portraying the leader of the spy agency and was the only character who I felt had moments of likability. John Malkovich did an excellent job as Duke, Ava’s immediate superior and handler. Despite some very awkward dialogue that explicitly states he is supposed to be a father figure to her, he really sold the role as a caring mentor. He was the only other character who I was sympathetic to, but his enabling of and covering for Ava’s destructive behavior tainted the character slightly.

I’m a firm believe that successful genera films use the spy, science fiction, or fantasy tropes as set dressing, while primarily focusing on human stories. Ava’s attempt to reach for human stories and attempts to generate emotional resonance are clearly present, but they fall short of achieving their goals. Despite the best efforts of a wonderful cast, this film fitted the genera features first, and tried to work emotional material in second, a fatal misstep that made the film feel as if it was confused about what it was trying to accomplish.

-Patrick Bernas