Producers: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Tracey Landon and Scott Robertson Director: Andrew Dominik Screenplay: Andrew Dominik Cast: Ana de Armas, Adrien Brody, Bobby Cannavale, Xavier Samuel, Julianne Nicholson, Lily Fisher, Evan Williams, Toby Huss, Dan Butler, Caspar Phillipson, Sara Paxton, Ned Bellamy, David Warshofsky and Rebecca Wisocky Distributor: Netflix
From “Chopper” to “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” to “Killing Them Softly,” Andrew Dominik has been a filmmaker as concerned with style as with plot—sometimes more so, in fact—and the trait is taken to an extreme in “Blonde,” less a biography of Marilyn Monroe than a florid fantasia on her life. The approach is not entirely Dominik’s: the film is adapted from Joyce Carol Oates’s 2001 huge and hugely (some would add irresponsibly) imaginative novel about the Hollywood icon, and the adaptation doesn’t shrink from mirroring its scope (“Blonde” runs only a trifle under three hours) or its flamboyance.
That, it turns out, is a problem. The thrust of the film’s analysis of Monroe’s psyche is strikingly simplistic: she had a terrible daddy problem. Her father abandoned her and her troubled mother Gladys (Julianne Nicholson), who told as young Norma Jeane (played by Lily Fisher) that he was a Hollywood big shot; and Marilyn (Ana de Armas) pined for his return all her life, buoyed when she received (or imagined) messages from him promising he was thinking of her and promising to come back even as she was shunted off to an orphanage after Gladys’ breakdown. In fact, when its version of Rosebud—a tattered stuffed tiger—appears at the end of the picture, we already know all too well what it signifies, and the fact that it’s turned into a cruel joke dovetails with the second of her issues.
That’s Marilyn’s inability to resist abuse from men, emotional and physical. It begins with her pain over her father’s absence, but quickly cuts to her manipulation by an agent (Dan Butler) who turns her into a sexpot; by a studio mogul (David Warshofsky), who rapes her in his office; and by a pair of callow, chattering friends, Cass Chaplin (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams), who take advantage of her early celebrity (an invention of the book, here played for all it’s worth). As her stardom grows, the flashbulb-popping press, portrayed as a ravenous horde, and the crowds of lustful male fans, their mouths grotesquely distorted as if to consume her, press in at premieres. When her emotional fragility threatens work on the set, her ever-present personal makeup aide (Toby Huss) is there to calm her down, along with a feel-good doctor (Ned Bellamy) with a syringe always at the ready.
And that just deals with the more professional side of her life. While ignoring her first marriage, the film spends a good deal of time on the second and third. The earlier, to the man identified only as The Ex-Athlete (Bobby Cannavale), descends into physical abuse when he’s blackmailed with nude photos of her from her early modeling days. The later, The Playwright (Adrien Brody), is a more pacific affair on the surface, but wrecked by her insecurities and by a miscarriage. (She’s previously had an abortion to allow hee to make a film, and is obsesssed by visions of the fetus in her womb.)
Those relationships are still handled far more delicately than that with The President (Caspar Phillipson), which is depicted in a sequence so lurid that it’s obviously designed to encapsulate the contemptuous way in which men—and here the most powerful man in the world—treated her as a mere sex object, to be used and then tossed crudely aside. It’s the culmination of the film’s portrait of the vulgar, often violent, exploitation of Marilyn that’s been its theme since the start, a theme that’s presented at Dominik’s technical best in his recreations of scenes from some of her films, even if they’re tweaked to accentuate the point. Yet by the time the film rolls to her death, one is left with the sour feeling that Dominik is exploiting her, too.
He does, however, get a chance to show off his stylistic proclivities in the process. He shifts screen formats persistently to segue from sequence to sequence, and from color to black-and-white, apparently to suggest changes in emotional tone. Working with production designer Florencia Martin, cinematographer Chayse Irvin and editor Adam Robinson, he achieves some startling effects, beginning with a striking shower of embers in the night as Gladys drives toward a spreading fire rather than away from it in an act of increasing madness, through myriad scenes that use camera tricks to emphasize Marilyn’s disorientation, including the awful bedroom session with The President, which actually cuts to television images of a rocket blasting off and a flying saucer crashing into the Capitol building as she services his desire. In purely technical terms you might be impressed by what he accomplishes, but any hint of the subtlety he displayed in “Jesse James” has evaporated. And the music score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is hardly understated, either.
One must, moreover, acknowledge that de Armas is superb in the lead. There are moments when she looks amazingly like Monroe, and others when the physical similarity is slightly off, but it doesn’t detract from the inner rightness of the performance, which captures both Marilyn’s fragility and at least a few vestiges of her intelligence and her skill as a “method” actress by instinct if not training, becoming a character internally rather than just crafting one from the outside.
Of the others, Brody comes off best as the intellectual playwright, but Cannavale is convincing as the lug trying to make Monroe happy but unable to control the impulses deriving from his inability to understand or appreciate her for who she is. Nicholson catches the wildness of a woman whose mental collapse lands her in permanent institutionalization that haunts and terrifies her daughter, and Fisher is sympathetic as the young Norma Jeane, while Butler and Huss contribute memorable cameos as sneaky hangers-on. But Samuel and Williams are encouraged to go fully over-the-top as the catty couple who prove no true friends to Marilyn to the very end.
In Dominik’s film Marilyn Monroe is as much a hapless plaything of abuse as he imagines her having been in real life. It’s a demeaning, incomplete portrait, told in an extravagant style that will make many viewers wince.