Well, never let it be said that Andrew Dominik doesn’t have a perspective. We like that about him. His signature voice is what powered The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and years later with the intellectual mob film Killing Them Softly. With the long-awaited Blonde, Dominik adapts Joyce Carol Oates’ highly-fictionalized account of the many hardships faced by Marilyn Monroe. It is indulgent to say the least, driven by such tragedy, gloom, and cruelty that it overshadows the hard work done by Ana de Armas to portray the tragic Hollywood legend.
Blonde is not a fun movie to watch. But worse, it’s so unendingly dark that it renders Monroe pretty uninteresting, as well. Let’s be clear, this is NOT a biopic and anyone saying so is feeding you bullpucky. Oates’ novel crafts a painful fairy tale of abuse by a whole series of men who only have their basest instincts in mind. It begins with her nonexistent father, an apparent Hollywood big shot who her unstable mother (Julianne Nicholson) drives through a raging wildfire to try and see. It didn’t go well.
From there, she is forever torn between the celebrity she loves as Marilyn Monroe, and the mundane normalcy she claims to crave as Norma Jeane. At every turn, her wants are waylaid by men, who she breathlessly refers to as “Daddy” (a bit on the nose) and becomes whatever they want her to be. Imagine the worst case scenario for every relationship and you’ll predict Blonde with ease. After entering a thrupple with Charlie Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams), both the sons of Hollywood royalty, they grow jealous and then blackmail her…and worse. There’s some actual historical fact to back up the abuses Monroe suffered in her marriage to Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale), culminating in Dominik and DP Chase Irvin’s stunningly accurate depiction of the iconic skirt-blowing scene. Don’t even get me started on the pornographic acts forced upon her by President John F. Kennedy while he conducts important acts of state business over the phone. “You dirty slut!”, he says after finishing. Did I mention that she was kidnapped by Secret Service and forced into it? This is wacko stuff. Even when things go well, like with playwright Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody), Monroe’s self-destructive tendencies get the better of her.
Blonde isn’t just an exhausting experience, it’s a punishing one. Dominik’s excesses include Monroe’s haunting visions of a fetus she aborted. There’s simply no escape; the torture comes in waves and many different flavors. Clocking in at nearly 3-hours in length, the grim hammering of Monroe’s existence becomes mind-numbing and soon almost comical. You can respect Dominik for sticking to his guns, but surely even he, or the film’s producers, saw that this was a movie nobody would ever sit through more than once, assuming they finish it at all. The Oates book is unreadable, in my opinion, so it makes sense an adaptation would be, too.
It’s sad because the film is genuinely gorgeous to look at. Dominik and Armas lovingly recreate unforgettable moments from Monroe’s scorching career, deftly moving from black & white to shifting aspect ratios and technicolor to capture the style of old Hollywood classics. Armas is also simply ravishing as Monroe, but that’s the easy part. What she also captures is that unteachable star quality that Monroe had that made her the envy of millions. When she is on the screen, which is virtually every second of every scene, Armas is undeniable and impossible to look away from. It even works somehow when a little bit of her Cuban accent peeks through the cracks.
Unfortunately, Armas’ performance is buried under a mountain of shit. There are ways of telling a balanced account of Marilyn Monroe’s undoubtedly troubled life, accounting for her personal pain with the pleasures she also enjoyed. Other movies have done it quite well, with My Week with Marilyn standing out as the first to pop into my mind. But Blonde tells us that any happiness Marilyn Monroe might have experienced was a facade, or just a precursor to debilitating sadness. After sitting through Blonde for 3 hours of my life, I can feel her pain.
Blonde is streaming on Netflix now.