Blonde – Movie Review

Blonde

  • Director: Andrew Dominik
  • Writer: Andrew Dominik
  • Starring: Ana de Armas, Bobby Cannavale, Adrien Brody, Julianne Nicholson, Evan Williams, Xavier Sameuls

Grade: C-

Has any Hollywood star loomed larger over pop culture since their discovery, and lingered even longer after their death, than Marilyn Monroe? Whether directly or indirectly, the blonde bombshell has appeared in too many biopics and fictionalizations to count in this column since her untimely death. Her life is the stuff of legend, and her tragic exploitation at the hands of virtually everyone that she trusted is well known by now. So what could be gained by making a new account of her life, based on Joyce Carol Oates’ novel of the same name?

Much like last year’s Spencer about Princess Diana, Blonde is essentially a fictionalized retelling of Monroe’s life from her early childhood to her death. The events depicted on-screen aren’t meant to be taken as canon, but the essence of them, and how they affected their subject’s mentality, are what matters. And much like Spencer, the film is anchored by the lead performance of its star; in this case, Ana de Armas. de Armas’ casting is perhaps the most crucial aspect of the film. She tries to emulate Monroe’s classic breathy voice, but her native Cuban accent is still ever-present. Believe it or not, this is not a dealbreaker, as de Armas manages to fully embody Monroe’s tragic circumstances and gives one of the best performances of the year.

Blonde; Netflix

In theory, writer and director Andrew Dominik would appear to be a perfect fit to adapt Blonde. Dominik’s best films like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Killing Them Softly deftly explored fame and the rotting American systems in today’s world. But Blonde sees him indulging in so many of his worst impulses that his message too frequently gets lost somewhere along the way. Early on, the film presents an interesting take on Monroe’s troubled mentality – that is, her dueling personalities as both Norma Jean (her birth name) and Marilyn (her stage name) – and the clashes that came out of that duality. Even when the film gets a little heavy-handed with this messaging, like when Monroe auditions for the psychological thriller Don’t Bother to Knock or when she visits her institutionalized mother, it’s refreshing to see Dominik approach the material as more than a standard biopic. One of the film’s best plot threads sees Monroe involved in a kind of debaucherous open relationship with Edward G. Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams) and Cass Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuel), as they rebel against the fame their fathers gifted them.

It isn’t long after Monroe gets noticed that the price of fame begins to rear its ugly head, and she’s suffocated by the men in power that don’t have her best interests in mind. One early heartbreaking scene sees Monroe seeking an agent who, after only a few minutes, rapes her without saying a word. Dominik (and Oates’ text) suggests she was doomed from the start. One of the film’s recurring motifs are letters that Monroe receives periodically from someone purporting to be her father (always ending with “I will contact you soon”). Thankfully Dominik doesn’t reduce Monroe’s struggles to something as simplistic as an absent father, but he suggests it’s a piece of a larger puzzle.

Blonde; Netflix

That point is hit even harder once Bobby Cannavale and Adrian Brody enter the picture (respectively, their official credits are listed as “The Ex-Athlete” and “The Playwright” but obviously the characters are based on her real-life marriages to Joe diMaggio and Arthur Miller), when she exclusively refers to them as Daddy as a kind of pet name. This is where the film begins to really fall apart, and where Dominik’s messaging really gets lost. The second half of the film (which runs for 166 minutes) consists mostly of scene after scene of Monroe suffering a personal tragedy, like a forced abortion or miscarriage, or continued sexual and professional harassment; this is a film that fully earns its NC-17 rating (a first for a streamer), though not in the ways you’d initially think. I started making a list of moments that Dominik made laughable by leaning entirely too much into overemphasis, but the list became too long to write here. An argument could be made that Blonde is an investigation into our own fascination with seeing Marilyn Monroe suffer when we already know how and why it happened, but Dominik doubles down so hard, and makes so many bizarre choices, that Blonde ends up mostly being an unpleasant experience.

At least the crafts throughout the film are enticing enough. Chayse Irvin’s cinematography is Oscar-worthy; the film noticeably switches from monochrome to color, and uses some remarkable camera tricks to make the film feel even more dream-like. I couldn’t determine an immediate thematic reason for the seemingly random switches, but I have no desire to rewatch the film to find out. Jennifer Johnson’s costumes and Florencia Martin’s production design are exquisite in evoking the mid-century aesthetic. And Ana de Armas gives the best performance of her young career, fully embodying all of Marilyn’s hopes, fears, and love from beginning to end. Were it not for her committed portrayal, Blonde would likely be an uninteresting mess.

Blonde; Netflix

I still believe that a biopic of Marilyn Monroe can be engaging and worthwhile, especially in a post-MeToo world. And I still remain excited to see Andrew Dominik’s future films. Blonde does effectively tap into Monroe’s troubled psyche as well as any on-screen depiction of her throughout the years, but Dominik is too unrestrained, too obsessed with making the audience uncomfortable, to be won over to his side.

Blonde is playing in select theaters now and will stream on Netflix on September 28.

OSCAR POTENTIAL:

  • Ana de Armas fully deserves her first nomination for Best Actress. As per usual, the category will feature some stiff competition this year, but Netflix is capable of mounting a campaign behind her. And don’t discount the Academy’s inherent love for seeing actors portraying real people.
  • It’s impossible to watch Blonde and not notice Chayse Irvin’s cinematography. Top Gun: Maverick and The Fabelmans are the only virtual locks at this point in the Oscar race, but I could see a world where Irvin scores a nomination.
  • Beyond those two, any other nominations for the films would be pleasant surprises. The reception at the fall film festivals has been muted at best, so it depends on how the film is received by the public at large when it’s released.

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