It doesn’t take long to realize that two voices speak in Blonde, an adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’s novel about the life of Marilyn Monroe: One voice belongs to the dramatic creation of an iconic movie star. We’ll get to the second voice later.
Monroe died in 1961 of a drug overdose. She was 36 and her death spawned theories of foul play that some believe penetrated the upper reaches of American power.
In Blonde, Ana de Armas plays Monroe with so much wrung-out emotion you may find yourself hoping that the actress was able to leave the work behind at the end of a day’s shooting.
De Armas captures Monroe's whispery, girlish voice and her naiveté, as well as the angry eruptions that developed late in her career when she thought she was being dissed by the studios and by directors who treated her as a joke.
It's one hell of a performance.
A quick digression: For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, Blonde has been given an NC-17 rating, the first Netflix film to be categorized as unsuitable for viewers under the age of 17. It has nudity and sex scenes, but ....
I don’t want to get into an argument about ratings here. Blonde has an NC-17 rating. Let's accept it and move on.
The second major voice speaking in Blonde belongs to director Andrew Dominik, who works in an overly stylized fashion, sometimes offering surreal strokes. An example of the surreal: A doll-like representation of the fetus the studios force Monroe to abort serves as an eerie emblem of irreparable loss.
It's more jarring than telling, too self-consciously literal.
A series of flashpoint episodes make it clear that Dominik, who hasn’t made a movie in 10 years, seriously tried to meet the challenge of what surely will be a much-scrutinized effort, given Monroe's prevalence as a persistent figure in both art and culture.
But is Dominik telling the story from Monroe’s disorienting perspective — or is it his disorienting perspective? In either case, Monroe’s inner life can seem so tormented it may drive viewers crazy just as it supposedly did Monroe.
The movie opens with a sustained depiction of child abuse by Marilyn’s whacko mother (Julianne Nicholson in a frighteningly vivid performance). Harrowing scenes of mommy abuse pave the way for one of the movie's amplified themes. Monroe, who never met her father, had big-time Daddy issues.
Thus prepped, we watch as Dominik mixes black-and-white footage with color and Monroe’s life unfolds in a series of purportedly telling vignettes.
Movies such as Niagara, Seven Year Itch, and Some Like It Hot are highlighted when they allow Dominik to make points about the Hollywood-created fictional character Monroe purportedly became. Mired in frustrated need, she becomes untethered from her "real" self.
The men in Monroe's life exemplify abusive or failed love. Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale) appears as a character named the Ex-Athlete. Playwright Arthur Miller is called The Playwright and is brought to life by Adrien Brody in a canny piece of work that captures Miller’s intellect, curiosity, tenderness, and betrayal. The Playwright used Monroe's life to feed his writing.
Both marriages end badly.
The oddest of Monroe's relationships is depicted as an early threesome involving Monroe, Charlie Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams). Dominik treats this trio as an emblem of isolated innocence with hints of darkness. The three supposedly thought of themselves as bound by fate.
Sound look hooey? Well that’s how I took it, too.
Other notable characters crop up in the movie's cavalcade of bad men. Actor Caspar Phillipson appears in what might be the most morally degenerate depiction of JFK (called only The President) to date.
Not only does The President exploit Monroe sexually, he does it during a phone call while a Secret Service agent sits at an open bedroom door. To reach the president's bedroom, Monroe is guided past a humiliating gauntlet of POTUS's staff.
Revelations about Monroe and the Kennedys are hardly new but Dominik seems to want us to feel the full measure of Monroe’s degradation at the hands of powerful men.
This exploitative world gives us a Monroe of limited personal agency. It’s as if she landed in LaLa Land for no other reason than to be exploited, a pawn in a cruel image-making game.
Dominik puts Monroe’s pain on display and at two hours and 46 minutes, the movie increasingly feels like a chore, its length encouraging a numbed tune-out.
Perhaps Blonde will rekindle interest and re-evaluation of Monroe’s work or maybe her life will be further pushed into a mold in which the carnal aspirations of a ravenous Hollywood power culture prove perpetually ruinous.
Whatever the movie’s fate, Blonde — in the immediacy of its moment — can be an ordeal; flashes of filmmaking brilliance and committed acting notwithstanding, I can’t think of a recent movie that I was more eager to see end.