Written and Directed by Andrew Dominik.
Starring Ana de Armas, Adrien Brody, Bobby Cannavale, Garret Dillahunt, Sara Paxton, Lucy DeVito, Julianne Nicholson, Scoot McNairy, Xavier Samuel, Caspar Phillipson, Evan Williams, Rebecca Wisocky, Toby Huss, Catherine Dent, Haley Webb, Eden Riegel, Spencer Garrett, Dan Butler, Tygh Runyan, David Warshofsky, Lily Fisher, Michael Masini, Chris Lemmon, Ned Bellamy, Colleen Foy, Brian Konowal, Tatum Shank, Andrew Thacher, Dominic Leeder, Lidia Sabljic, Ravil Isyanov, Tim Ransom, Time Winters, and Ryan Vincent.
A fictionalized chronicle of the inner life of Marilyn Monroe.
I couldn’t help noticing this quote from Joyce Carol Oates (the author of the novel writer/director Andrew Dominik’s Blonde is based on):
“I intended it to be a novella, somewhere around 175 pages, and the last words would have been ‘Marilyn Monroe.’ But over time, I got so caught up in her world that I couldn’t stop there. The final result was this book. The first draft was, originally, longer than the version that was finally published. Some sections were shortened while others had to be surgically removed from the book.”
While I have not read this novel telling a fictionalized version of Marilyn Monroe’s life, I can say Andrew Dominik has more or less done the same thing with Blonde. The film suffers from this approach, especially by the third hour, where the abusive relationships, rape, troubled production shoots, more rape, conspiracy theory indulging, barbiturate misuse, and some more rape before a gut-punch ending wrapping together the film’s daddy issues framing device has long stopped feeling like a harrowing, pull-no-punches extreme behind-the-curtain look at a tragic private life with weighty sadness and emotional dots.to connect, but has cliff-dived into “what’s the greater point” repetitiveness.
It’s also possible that Andrew Dominik has distilled what sounds like a messy novel into the best possible version of itself as a cinematic adaptation.
Without Ana de Armas as Norma Jeane Mortensen/Marilyn Monroe, a remarkable talent daring and brave enough to ride the same relentlessly punishing wavelength as Andrew Dominik and one that has similarly risen to superstardom through no shortage of on-screen sexual objectification (she was guaranteed to rise the Hollywood ranks as soon as she appeared in Eli Roth’s twisty and sleazy thriller Knock Knock, seducing and blackmailing Keanu Reeves), here giving arguably the best performance of her career, Blonde would be insufferable.
Wandering from one toxic relationship to the next, Ana de Armas sells this never-ending despair for all it’s worth, receiving several crying scenes (I lost count for roughly an hour in, and the timing would have been a lot less if the first act wasn’t a childhood prologue where Norma Jeane is sympathetically played by Lily Fisher) and challenging acting tasks. In one of the film’s most devastating bits, a distressed and traumatized Norma Jeane gradually pushes that pain back inside, startlingly transforming into an all-smiles Marilyn Monroe (or what the people crave and what she has come to resent).
Not only is the above a ridiculously formidable range of expressions for any actor to rotate between on the fly, but it also proves that Andrew Dominik’s Blonde could have spared some more time exploring genuinely happy moments in her life (and not just forced smiles). Mostly starting when Marilyn Monroe has achieved a moderate degree of success in Hollywood, there’s a short scene tucked between all the aforementioned horrors (perhaps someone forgot to cut it out) and more the amount of fan mail and gifts (such as flowers) are brought up. Two letters are read, one containing words of praise and the other scathing ridicule, making for a juxtaposition providing some slight humor and a reprieve from bleakness.
Another terrific short bit sees Norma arguing a pay disparity between her and her male coworkers. In turn, this also offers Ana de Armas an opportunity to flex emotions beyond sadness; Norma is justifiably angry and doing whatever she can to stand up for herself. That’s not to say she could fight back in every unfortunate situation she found herself in, but it would have been nice to see a healthier balance of this intelligence and fight contrasted with the abuse on display. The same goes for the relationships; surely, a few upbeat interactions existed to toss in, which by doing so, would further flesh out the dynamics and add more substance to the abusive aspects.
To Andrew Dominik’s credit, he does lend an artful touch to Blonde (even during sequences of uncomfortable sexual coercion and forced abortions that are preceded by awkward CGI fetus shots giving off a gross anti-abortion bent). There is a wide array of aspect ratios and clever usage of black-and-white photography. More to the point, the photography from Chayse Irvin is stellar, granting even the harshest scenes and repetitive beats a distinctive vision, saving it from the tasteless disaster it could have been.
As a whole, Blonde comes undone following an estimated eight-year time jump to 1962. Not only is it jarring skipping over so much of Norma Jeane’s life after spending almost 2 hours in the early 1950s, but the shape of the narrative entirely falls apart. At a certain point, it feels like Andrew Dominik is grabbing into a bag, pulling out pieces of paper with horrific moments written on them to decide what to shoot next.
Fortunately, he has terrific work from And de Armas in every single one of those scenes. It’s also important to note that the supporting cast (including Adrien Brody, Bobby Cannavale, and Xavier Samuel are all solid as the failed partners, as is Julianne Nicholson portraying Gladys, the unstable institutionalized mother Norma consistently seeks approval from).
Many of the characters are not explicitly named, but, for example, it’s also relatively simple to figure out who “the ex-athlete” is meant to be. Each of these relationships is worthy of a full-length movie, which is probably why Blonde feels like it’s cutting viewers short by largely only sticking to the nasty parts. However, it is intriguing that each of these partners was older than the next, playing into Norma’s desire for love and a father figure (throughout the film, she reads letters from her dad, who regularly proposes the possibility of finally meeting but is unable to commit).
Taking Blonde at face value for the shattering portrait of abuse it taps into (although by no means does it deserve an NC-17 rating), it is tough to write off. Even if the structure loses form and the film goes on for too long, nearly every single scene is compelling for one reason or another (typically a depressing reason). You come away wishing there was more to it, but three hours of Ana de Armas turning in phenomenal work deserves a recommendation. Once it’s over, it’s unlikely one will ever want to watch it again, although it is riveting and difficult to shake.
Blonde is debatably misguided. However, the results yielded from that questionable approach are impressive.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com