Lou premieres exclusively on Netflix on Sept. 23.
Since 2008’s Taken, there’s been no shortage of geezer action movies featuring AARP-aged dudes implausibly tearing it up like they’re fresh out of college. They’re undoubtedly fun fantasy, but noticeably there have been few female counterparts that have gotten the same showcase opportunities. Netflix’s Lou feels like a calculated strike to remedy that gap, and it absolutely lives up to the standards of its niche action subcategory. Allison Janney slips into the role of Lou, an elder, battle-skilled misanthrope, like it’s a second skin, and barks and scowls her way into our hearts. Jurnee Smollett is the desperate mom (and Lou’s neighbor) trying to get her daughter back from a kidnapper, who admirably has no fear in butting up against Lou’s flinty demeanor. Together, they keep the action grounded, realistic, and motivated by maternal instinct.
Set in the ‘80s on a remote island in the Pacific Northwest, the movie opens with an enigmatic prologue featuring Lou doing some metaphorical house cleaning with only her pooch Jackson for companionship. The story then widens out to explain the context of her actions and her aloof relationship with but respected place amongst locals of the small town she calls home. She’s got a tract of land in the woods with her home, and a trailer she rents to single mother Hannah (Smollett) and her 10-year-old daughter, Vee (Ridley Asha Bateman). Lou’s gruff with the pair and keeps herself distanced from them until a major storm rolls in and changes everything.
The storm brings with it someone from Hannah’s past who, using the cover of the torrential rain and lack of power, takes Vee and leaves notes for Hannah to follow. Desperate, she runs to Lou’s house and seeks the older woman’s help and she surprisingly agrees. Engaging her unparalleled tracking skills, the two head out into the dark of night where more of Lou’s previously unrevealed skills will present themselves in due time.
Maggie Cohn and Jack Stanley have crafted a sleek, efficient script that doesn’t get mired by bloated exposition scenes or an overabundance of action beats. Director Anna Foerster masterfully uses the dense, natural environment of British Columbia and the relentless onslaught of the rain to slowly reveal the depth and prowess of Lou’s abilities. The landscape provides the bulk of the physical challenges they encounter, which builds up a very effective tension the deeper the women travel towards Vee. That’s supported by some excellent sound design that amplifies the environmental soundscape as another player in the story, and the use of some savvy audio transitions.
And because of the story’s ‘80s setting, there’s almost no reliance on tech aside from two-way radios, which refreshingly keeps the confrontation points grounded in what the environment can provide for cover, protection, or offense. Ingenuity determines the upper hand as fights are mostly mano-a-mano, with assists made by gnarly exposed wood, rusted metal, and the occasional gun. Where Janney’s Lou is icily adept, Smollett’s Hannah is competent but more overwhelmed by the situation, so their skills and flaws work well together. And as both get bounced around and beat up along the way, it shows on their bodies. Everyone is physically messed up by the third act and that lends an authenticity to the whole production that keeps it real with reasonable physical limits a big part of how the story is told.
Performance-wise, Janney is so good you’ll be wondering why she wasn’t given an action franchise a decade ago. Her Lou, like countless action stars before her, is a woman of few words but when she does deign to speak, Janney makes sure to deliver the dialogue with either black humor or a bluntness that ends up revealing plenty about just who she is. Smollett is a great foil for Janney, picking up the expressive emotional slack when the two do have deeper conversations. She’s vulnerable yet physical enough to unleash the believable Mama Bear instincts the more dire the situation gets. There’s also a really strong child performance from Bateman who does well against her adult counterparts and adds to the fierce female showcases that make this one to watch.