Review: In Blonde, a Narrow Script and Chaotic Filmmaking Reduce an American Icon to an Empty Vessel

Blonde, the new film by Andrew Dominik (Killing Them Softly, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), is a torturous 2 hours and 46 minutes long, most of which is dedicated to convincing us that Marilyn Monroe was abused, assaulted and otherwise put-upon for the entirety of her life and career, that she was miserable and misunderstood, and that she only existed through and for the sake of the male gaze. The film is based on a novel (yes, fiction) by Joyce Carol Oates; no one would deny that Monroe's life was actually rocky, that she was used by men with more power than she had (which was most of them), or that she was unable to get the help she needed and her life came to a tragic end. But Blonde, with its overstuffed runtime and overdramatic histrionics, refuses to acknowledge any dimensions that existed in Monroe beyond her victimhood.

Ana de Armas (Knives Out) as Monroe is captivating; those skeptical of her chops (as, I admit, I was) to pull off this iconic role will be won over within the first half hour, as she pouts and emotes and whisper-talks exactly the way Monroe did. But after about that long, as de Armas is called on to weep on cue, to cower under pressure, to endure emotional and physical abuse so frequently, even her stellar acting becomes exhausting. Surely Monroe got a break now and then; it's only fair de Armas does, too. What could've been the saving grace of what's otherwise a mess of a movie ultimately becomes yet another casualty as Dominik, who wrote the adapted screenplay, doubles down on his myopic vision of a woman who, perhaps more than we'll ever know, contained multitudes.

Blonde covers essentially Monroe's entire life, starting with a troubled childhood with an unstable mother (Julianne Nicholson) who, between beatings, told little Norma Jeane about the father who didn't want her, a studio exec she would never know. After her mother is committed to a mental asylum, Norma Jeane is sent to an orphanage, screaming all the while how she's not an orphan; even the actor playing young Norma Jeane, Lily Fisher, has to oversell her trauma. Blonde has a lot of ground to cover, so the next section of Monroe's life is essentially glossed over, as she gets discovered, starts modeling and even has some nude photos taken, a job that will come back to haunt her in the prim and proper '50s as her star rose to fame. Her break into show business is the first brutal confrontation Dominik hands us around just what kind of story we're in for: at a meeting with a studio executive, Monroe barely gets a word in before we see him unbuckling his pants and bending Monroe over to rape her from behind. The film is filled with this sort of misogyny, both overt or otherwise. Sometimes, it's the camera tracking Monroe's movements at ass-height, men's heads turning and gawking as she walks by. Sometimes it's in the White House, JFK laid up in bed with some unnamed physical ailment but still perfectly capable of forcing Monroe into giving him oral sex, a nearly impossible scene to stomach and likely what gave the movie its NC-17 rating.

As Monroe's fame grows, so does her fragility. She has very few, if any, people in her life she can trust, and even a reunion with her mother is a disappointment as the senile woman doesn't recognize this platinum blonde woman who's come to see her. There are relationships, from an apparent sort of "thruple" with Cass Chaplin Jr. (Charlie's son, played by Xavier Samuel) and Eddy G. Robinson Jr. (the actor's son, played by Evan Williams), which glimpses a bit of Monroe's free spirit until that's crushed by jealousies and nervous agents who don't want it to get out, to marriages to "The Ex-Athlete" (clearly DiMaggio, played by Bobby Cannavale) and "The Playwright" (Arthur Miller, played by Adrien Brody), both of whom are heavily toxic in their own ways. Dominik isn't satisfied with just letting these doomed relationships play out to their known conclusions; instead, he insists on infantilizing Monroe again and again as she refers to any man she's attached to as "Daddy," whimpering and simpering for their approval.

While Dominik's approach to telling Monroe's story is disappointing, to say the least, it might be forgiven if he at least built it around a structurally sound, cohesive movie that makes a case for this otherwise misguided narrative. Instead, his filmmaking is so chaotic, so uneven, it's next to impossible to find anything redeemable about it. The film alternates between black-and-white and color footage, which for a time I came to think represented when Monroe was Norma Jeane and when she was Marilyn, but either I interpreted this theme entirely incorrectly or Dominik's use of it ultimately becomes as inconsistent as the rest of his filmmaking. He plays with aspect ratios as well, and makes some of the most questionable crosscuts one can recall (a particularly overstated moment involves the thruple and... Niagara Falls?).

It's not that any film exploring the life and work of an icon should be polished and smoothed out—far from it. Monroe was a complicated, troubled and yes, abused, woman, and it's a disservice to her legacy (and dangerous to future generations of actors) to pretend that side of her life didn't exist. But it's also irresponsible to present a film that many will take at face value as some semblance of the facts that either overcorrects into the darkest corners of her life and emotional state or simply gets it wrong. More than once, Dominik drives home the thesis that Monroe simply wanted to be known as more than her body, more than her good looks; it's in these moments that de Armas' ability to capture a crestfallen glance that will break your heart is on full display. But once he's established this (or rather, after he's established this again and again...and again), the filmmaker seems not interested at all in telling us what she did want to be seen as, or who she was when all those lording power or influence over her stepped aside.

In the end, it's impossible to capture all of who and what a person is—any person, let alone someone as noteworthy as Monroe—in a single film trying to cover an entire life. That Dominik chooses to make such a vapidly uninteresting, convoluted mess of a narrative around Marilyn Monroe is, at best, a bummer, as she's someone who deserves so much more. While the conversation may not always be positive around Blonde, it is at the very least a conversation starter, and that alone may be worth experiencing it for yourself.

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

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Lisa Trifone