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‘Ava’ and the Silly Trend of Sad Movie Assassins

Are you an expert killer in a high-octane action film? Well, as demonstrated by the new Jessica Chastain thriller, the odds are very good that, deep down, you’re a tormented, miserable cliché.

Ava is very good at her job. In the opening moments of Ava, she pulls her SUV over at a French airport, picking up a British businessman (Ioan Gruffudd), who can’t help but notice how beautiful his driver is. Soon, they’re zooming through the countryside and she gets flirty with him: Maybe he’d like her to join him in the backseat for a drink and… whatever else. He obliges, but once she pulls over, he realizes her real motive: She’s an assassin who’s been hired to kill him. With lethal efficiency, she shoots him dead and then gets back on the road. But she tells her handler, Duke (John Malkovich), that she’s burned out. She needs a break. Killing people is hard.

Spies, assassins and hitmen have been a cinematic staple since James Bond, and in my movie education I’ve learned two things: (1) The profession is filled with glamorous, gorgeous people; and (2) they’re almost always miserable. Even 007 — who for generations was played by swaggering, handsome men — is now portrayed by the brooding Daniel Craig. It’s not enough that we need to be impressed with their special skills — we need to understand that, deep down, their work is taking a toll on their soul. Next time you see an assassin, give him or her a hug. They’re going through a lot.

Two-time Oscar-nominee Jessica Chastain is the star of Ava, a goofy would-be B-movie that tries to position itself as trashy fun. Better known for serious roles in The Tree of Life and Zero Dark Thirty, Chastain seems to relish the opportunity to be in a down-and-dirty espionage thriller full of double-crosses and killshots. But, you see, Ava isn’t just about cool action — Ava is complicated, folks. She has demons. She has unresolved issues in her past. She may look amazing in a dress as she dispenses with her latest target with stunning skill, but she’s crying on the inside. Just once, I’d like to meet an assassin who just flat-out loves killing people. There has to be at least one, right?

Directed by Tate Taylor (The Girl on the Train), Ava follows Ava as she returns home to Boston for the first time in about eight years. Her family — sister Judy (Jess Weixler) and ill mother Bobbi (Geena Davis) — are shocked to see her. Where has Ava been? Almost a decade ago, she was an addict who ran out on the people closest to her, including her fiancé Michael (Common), to join the army. Along the way, though, she became an expert killer working for a black-ops group paid to eliminate bad people. Trying her best to stay clean while trotting the globe offing dudes, she had to walk away from everything. Sure, she finally found her calling… but at what price?

In recent years, Hollywood has discovered that female-driven action movies can be successful. Wonder Woman was a commercial juggernaut, as was Captain Marvel, and Charlize Theron has beefed up her résumé in recent years with Mad Max: Fury Road, Atomic Blonde and The Old Guard. (And don’t forget Scarlett Johansson’s underrated Lucy.) Now comes Chastain, who enters this high-octane genre with the same sort of steely demeanor she showed in Miss Sloane and Molly’s Game. It’s fun to see her shooting guns and beating the hell out of people — or, it would be if Taylor had any kind of action-filmmaking acumen. But because Ava is so creatively threadbare, the story keeps stumbling over its conventional ideas. And its most conventional is its blazingly unoriginal insight that, really, assassins are sad, broken people. The whole movie is built around how deep it thinks it is for telling us this.

Jessica Chastain as Ava in, um, ‘Ava’

While Bond isn’t technically an assassin, the big-screen adaptation of the Ian Fleming character popularized the idea that there was a whole world of super-secret men and women trying to kill one another with neat gadgets and rad weapons. James Bond oozed sex appeal as he wore nice suits, drank martinis and slept with every beautiful woman in sight. Who wouldn’t want to be 007? Bond’s fabulous fantasy was soon dismantled by the more realistic novels of John le Carré (and the subsequent film versions), in which career spies gave everything to their difficult, unsexy jobs, soaking up cigarette smoke more than the intoxicating scent of supermodels. 

Ever since, cinematic spies and assassins have oscillated between cool (Vin Diesel’s XXX) and haunted (Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne films). The Professional is a classic template for that latter category of sad assassin. In the Luc Besson film, Jean Reno’s hitman Leon is a maestro at killing but, you see, he’s got a void in his life that needs to be filled. Once he meets the innocent young Mathilda (Natalie Portman), who’s in desperate need of a protector, he realizes how lonely and unloved he feels. The whole idea of The Professional is that Leon needs to learn he needs to stop being a hitman.

That’s not exactly what happens in Ava, but Ava is presented as a character who’s got too much of a heart to be an assassin. She has this weird quirk where, before she kills her prey, she asks them what bad thing they’ve done since her handlers never tell her. (In part, she seems to want the answer to justify to herself that they’re deserving of being killed.) This tendency, understandably, annoys her bosses — in particular, the merciless Simon (Colin Farrell) — and is meant to suggest that, for all her skill, she lacks the coldblooded cruelty that the job requires. In Ava, this deficiency is considered a good thing. No decent person would want to be a killer.

Much of Ava involves her reconnecting with her family, though keeping mum about her profession, while confronting a painful past she tried to escape. (For one thing, let’s just say it’s incredibly awkward for her to hang around Judy and Michael, who are now engaged to be married.) Chastain is a terrific actress, but even terrific actresses struggle to play characters whose addiction is depicted with this level of cheesiness. (She dutifully stares at liquor bottles in her hotel mini-fridge with an admirable amount of pained longing.) Whether it’s Ava’s romantic woes, family dysfunction or addictive personality, Ava suggests that her transformation into an elite killing machine is an elaborate defense mechanism to flee her problems. This movie is one of the sillier illustrations of how filmmakers love assuring us that assassins don’t really enjoy their work — and that, as a result, it’s okay if we watch their violent exploits. They’re suffering the whole time, so we don’t have to feel guilty for living vicariously through all their exciting exploits.

Eventually, of course, Ava will discover that, even though she’s retreated to Boston, her work life can find her very easily. Simon wants her eliminated, which — wouldn’t you know it? — requires her to show off the very impressive ass-kicking qualities that are the whole point for the film’s existence. I’m not trying to advocate that your son or daughter grow up to be an assassin, but this notion that they’re all haunted, spiritually adrift characters needing to become whole is a cliché I wish movies would do away with. Killing is wrong, but in a movie it’s perfectly acceptable — why not just embrace the inherent thrill that hitmen thrillers provide? 

Filmmakers think making their assassins melancholy will somehow give their lethal characters a sense of gravitas and rugged authenticity. But as Ava suggests, it mostly just makes them a killjoy.