There’s a good chance that you’ll be gasping for air by the end of Andrew Dominik’s merciless fever dream, Blonde, starring a miraculous Ana de Armas as screen icon Marilyn Monroe. With a running time of nearly three hours and a rating of NC-17 (Netflix’s first), Dominik’s take on celebrity, toxicity, and the loss of identity isn’t interested in the facts surrounding the famed actress’ truncated career or her tragic death at 36 as much as psychologically inhabiting her skin. In doing so, he flings us down a rabbit hole where childhood trauma, the trappings of fame, and a male-dominated industry conspire like Satanic priests to devour her cowering soul. The result is a visual nightmare that’s both enthralling and frustrating; sometimes in equal measures.
Writer/Director Andrew Dominik’s adaptation of the 700-page novel by Joyce Carol Oates opens on seven-year-old Norma Jeane (Lily Fisher) as she’s tormented by her alcoholic mother (Julianne Nicholson). One day, her mother shows her a photograph of a man in a fedora and says that her father’s a Hollywood bigwig who abandoned them. The image of an absentee father who works in “the industry” unleashes a torrent of emotion which courses through the film.
From there, Dominik hurries us through Monroe’s adolescence and early 20’s where she endures the rigmarole of auditions, acting classes, and pin-up shoots. She gets her big break with a small role in All About Eve, but only after submitting to a studio head who rapes her in his office. It’s a jarring moment which tears down our preconceived idolatry. She’s human and a victim. Not a symbol. Throughout her journey, Dominik and cinematographer Chayse Irvin switch between black and white and technicolor, creating a dizzying effect; we don’t know where fantasy begins and reality ends. Soon, Norma Jeane creates the screen personae Marilyn Monroe, which plays as a splinter in her psyche. Suddenly, she lives in a jigsaw puzzle with disembodied voices, grotesque reflections, bright lights, and cameras that snap like gunshots.
As Monroe becomes famous in films like Niagara and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, she dreamily floats from one romance to another. The most ill-conceived of these is a steady threesome with Cass (Xavier Samuels) and Eddie (Evan Williams), the sons of Charlie Chaplin and Edward G. Robinson, respectively. This groan-inducing sequence plays like a tacky Calvin Klein ad and lands with a pretentious thud. Suddenly, she’s pregnant with one of their babies and becomes tabloid fodder. Buckling under pressure from the studio, she gets an abortion, which haunts her for the rest of her life. Although it’s genuinely heartbreaking, CGI shots from inside her cervix, in which her aborted baby scolds her, are ill-suited. Scenes like these might’ve held resonance in Oates’ novel, but onscreen they feel maladroit and outlandish. Thankfully, they are few and far between.
From there, we tiptoe through her marriage with baseball legend, Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Canavale), whose ego is so fragile you wonder why he married a movie star in the first place. Their relationship disintegrates into a battleground of physical and mental abuse. Her subsequent marriage to playwright Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody) is more tender and intellectually stimulating, although he creepily idealizes her as a girl from his childhood named “Magda.” These relationships feel like Faustian bargains in which she sells a piece of her soul in return for paternal love. After a miscarriage, she descends into an inferno of pills, booze, and a sordid affair with John F. Kennedy, which is exposed in the movie’s most disturbing scene.
This isn’t the first time the Australian filmmaker has tackled the subject of celebrity. From Chopper to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Dominik seems fascinated with fame’s ability to camouflage and even exacerbate mental illness. Is it any wonder that Dominik’s version of Jesse James is the only one in cinema history who seemingly suffers from schizophrenia?
With a swooning score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, Blonde shares the same unsettling, dreamlike mood as his other films, although this one’s bleaker. While movies like Jesse James and even Killing Them Softly balance grim material with absurdist humor and unique characters, Blonde is unceasingly brutal and sullen. There isn’t a trace of Marilyn Monroe’s incandescent wit or the exuberance she brought to the screen, which keeps us at a certain distance. But this is completely intentional. The film doesn’t want us to empathize with Marilyn as much as share a confined space with her. A sensory experience filled with dread and paranoia, at times, you feel locked inside a hall of mirrors without an escape. Simply put, Dominik wants to know what it’s like to be the victim of a toxic culture, physically. Sometimes his stylistic flourish works; at other times it feels awkward or exploitative.
Thankfully, Ana de Armas provides the compassion and humanity the movie so desperately needs. She doesn’t play Monroe as much as disappear inside her. With her breathy voice and childlike gaze, she creates a portrait of a woman slowly drowning in the malaise of an unforgiving world. Yes, her Cuban accent surfaces from time to time, but her tour-de-force performance makes those complaints irrelevant. It’s a performance of such grit and daring, it’ll be remembered for years.
If you’re expecting a conventional biopic, you’ll be sorely disappointed. This is a complex portrait of victimhood that takes chances and asks tough questions. It’s also probably too long, inconsistent, abrasive, and could’ve lost a few sequences which decelerate an otherwise immersive experience. Dominik trusts his audience to fill in the blanks though, and that alone is intoxicating.
Blonde is in theaters now and debuts on Netflix on Wed., Sep. 28.
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