Back in 2015, Mumford & Sons released Wilder Mind the eventual electrified crossroad at which all acoustic acts have found themselves since Dylan at Newport. At the 1:55 mark on the lead single, “Believe,” one band member triumphantly strikes an electric guitar chord and sustains it for several seconds. It’s the most boring electric transition of the modern age and yet Mumford & Sons acts like it invented the goddamn instrument … and boy, are they going to milk the moment.
Imagine that feeling for nearly three hours rather than six seconds, and you’ve got Blonde — both the least provocative NC-17 film ever made and the least interesting from writer-director Andrew Dominik, for whom Blonde should be a slam-dunk. (The film is currently playing in limited release and will begin streaming on Netflix tomorrow.)
As the film adaptation of a novel by Joyce Carol Oates, Blonde is already two layers removed from anything resembling the reality of its subject, Marilyn Monroe — herself only ever existing in the public consciousness as an abstraction or artifact of animalistic desire. In other words, it’s not intended for interpretation as a straight-up biopic but rather a hazy suggestion of the passion of Marilyn Monroe. Dominik is no stranger to upending myth, either, as he did in the masterful, and still undervalued, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
But in this protracted, pretentious effort to exhume her essence, Dominik trades all of that hot-light interrogation intensity for obnoxiously on-the-nose song cues, cutaways to waterfalls and explosions for respective female and male ejaculation, and a painfully one-note performance from Ana De Armas that, at its best feels like how Madonna might Marilyn Monroe. (Oh, and if someone you know compares this to a David Lynch movie with a straight face because it contains copious amounts of fire and screaming, break it off, unfriend, ghost, delete their number, etc.)
Don’t ask what any of the color or aspect-ratio shifts are meant to symbolize, beyond Dominik getting one of those unrestricted Netflix budgets that are likely now a thing of the past. (OK, so Blonde cost “only” $22 million, but that still seems like too much money for a nearly three-hour film about Marilyn Monroe that will go unfinished by 80% of the people who start it.) The only semblance of complexity for this embodiment of Monroe — otherwise reduced to “sexpot with daddy issues” in a real shocker — is the performer’s perpetually denied preference to get some creative license with her characters, informed by her unassisted research into Dostoevsky and Chekhov.
Blonde is otherwise a dutiful slog through the “Personal life” tab of Monroe’s Wikipedia page, which perhaps wisely junks the conspiracy theorizing of Oates’ source novel but doesn’t fill it in with anything of note and casts the players in Monroe’s life with faces like Adrien Brody and Bobby Cannavale that will elicit a small “hmph” of recognition and little else. (The suspicious nature of letters from her absentee father comes closest to poignancy here, but it’s clearly not enough on which to hang something this lugubrious. As the performances go, perennial That Guy Toby Huss is perhaps the MVP as Monroe’s personal makeup artist, letting his soul briefly burble to the surface amid his superficial obligations.)
Worst of all, Dominik fatally indulges in the same braying-jackass voyeurism he’d like to indict, filming grate-skirt promotional appearances for The Seven-Year Itch from more anatomically inclined angles than the explosions would receive in a Chuck Norris movie. It’s awfully rich to have Monroe turn to the camera and ask what business of ours her life is anyway after a move like that. Ultimately, she’s no less of a plaything in Dominik’s hands than she was in anyone else’s. That’s a depressing takeaway from what amounts to a very long, quite pungent ’90s Fincher-directed perfume ad.