Ana de Armas portrays one of Hollywood’s greatest icons in Andrew Dominik’s devastating new film about her trials and tribulations in Hollywood.
After releasing The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford in 2007 and Killing Them Softly in 2012, writer/director Andrew Dominik would go on to direct two documentaries centered around musician Nick Cave (those being One More Time With Feeling and This Much I Know To Be True), both of which revealed an intimate and powerful vulnerability rarely seen from celebrities or artists. Those two chronicles would prove to be preparation for his newest narrative film, Blonde, and despite the issues within the source material that were carried into its adaptation, the film remains a brutal yet provocative watch thanks to Dominik’s creativity and Ana de Armas’s captivating performance as Marilyn Monroe.
Based on the novel of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates, Blonde is a fictionalized account of Monroe’s life, starting with her tumultuous childhood as Norma Jeane, who is deserted by an unnamed but powerful film producer birth father. The effects of this drive her mother Gladys (Julianne Nicholson) into insanity to the point where she inflicts an abhorrent trauma onto Norma Jeane that drives her into an insane asylum while Norma lives in an orphanage. Norma Jeane feels the lasting effects of said ordeal well after she’s become the iconic blonde bombshell who captivated 1950s cinema.
While struggling to juggle her personalities as the Hollywood starlet and her real self amongst the dark underbelly of the film industry, Norma longs to learn her father’s identity and why he abandoned her in hopes of comprehending the reasons for her life’s condition, forming several romantic relationships along the way with men like Charlie Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuel), Edward G. Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams), Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody, whose character is listed as ‘The Playwright’), and Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale, whose role is labeled as ‘The Ex-Athlete’).
The greatest strength of Dominik’s latest is the tour de force performance from Ana de Armas. After stealing the show in Blade Runner 2049, Knives Out and No Time To Die, de Armas is finally allowed to show her strength as an actress, and the results here could very well net her an Oscar nomination this year. Her work in Blonde is a dual performance in a way, as Marilyn shifts mentally from her Hollywood persona to Norma Jeane and back again, exuding the former with a breathy, melodramatic manner as if the cameras are still on, while she depicts the latter’s hardships as Norma Jeane with natural rawness, powerful nuances and unbelievable bravery.
Dominik’s direction also makes the harrowing events of his latest film watchable through his ingenuity as a filmmaker. Blonde is structured chronologically yet tonally feels like a labyrinth of dreams that morph into nightmares that Norma can’t wake up from, as the inner machinations of her mind are replicated with beautiful and unsettling results. One example comes after Marilyn’s marriage to The Playwright that sees the two on a beach. The intimacy between the couple is expressed with grand splendor, as the closeup on Marilyn’s face gazing into the camera as if it’s her lover’s eyes and professing her love for him is full of genuine affection and happiness. Another moment of bliss comes in Marilyn’s first meeting with Charlie and Edward, the climax of which sees her gripping onto the bed before it transforms into a waterfall, creating a composition that is majestic in its surrealism.
Meanwhile, Marilyn’s struggle to control both her internal selves with every atrocity she experiences causes her mind to unravel, and the dark side of life as a woman in Hollywood is portrayed differently at every turn, such as when the intelligent starlet makes her entrance into a premiere and notices that the faces of all the men surrounding the red carpet are distorted, their voices slowed to an ominous pitch that unsettles the poor woman and unsuspecting viewers.
The editing is also clever in how scenes transition back and forth from not only black and white to color, but also from widescreen to full frame aspect ratios to invite questions about everything Marilyn brought into each and every role and how she saw acting as a release of her inner pain. Her time in the spotlight as a result of her celebrity is gorgeously photographed in a monochrome that perfectly replicates the look of candid photos one would see in the gossip column of a tabloid. The minimalist score also adds a pensive menace to the horrors on-screen, as well as ethereal pleasure to what joy Marilyn feels over the course of her biopic, whether it’s in an early occurrence when Norma Jeane and her mother escape a wildfire, or private moments with Charlie and Edward.
Yet as excellent as de Armas is in her role, and as masterful of a craftsman Dominik is, Blonde runs at a whopping two hours and forty-six minutes that doesn’t paint a well-rounded picture of Marilyn Monroe. The script lays all the sad happenings of its subject’s life on thick to the point of being over-the-top, refusing to spend time on both her influence to artists that followed her, and her positive legacy as a pop culture icon. Here, Marilyn suffers horrible acts of sexism, violence and control at the hands of demanding executives as well as important people in her life, and a lot of these happen more than once over the course of the film, leaving spectators to debate which of them belonged on the cutting room floor.
It’s also worth noting that the script is bogged down by exposition that distracts from both de Armas’ performance and Dominik’s filmmaking genius. One example is during the premiere of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, at which Marilyn’s original audio is dubbed over Armas’s sublime replication of “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend”, during which Monroe says aloud, “This isn’t me.” The image that follows of her in a red-tinted theater surrounded by powerful socialites is ten times more haunting than the line, which renders the shot’s power redundant.
Blonde is not a film for everyone. It’s one of the toughest watches in recent memory, and those triggered by on-screen acts of rape, sexism and pregnancy-related tragedies are better off avoiding the film altogether. But Dominik makes each horrific event in Marilyn’s life look different than the last, and conveys empathy for her after each tribulation, in addition to sadness and anger at the system and people responsible for her demise. Those looking to take the plunge will be mesmerized by Dominik’s artistry, absorbed by Ana de Armas’ tremendous turn, and mortified by what Monroe goes through right to the film’s conclusion. Blonde is a draining film, but a visceral one all the same, and a unique biopic not for the faint of heart.