“It’s just little ole you? All alone in this great big world?”
As a critic, one of the aspects I’m always drawn to whenever a film begins is the world in which it’s set. It’s perhaps the most indispensable of elements when it comes to bringing a film to life. Ask other critics, and most will tell you that the strength and overall experience of a movie heavily depends on the sense of place it possesses. When I heard that Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon’s setting was New Orleans, I wondered what kind of world writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour would craft from such an iconic city.
Watching the film, I was transfixed by Amirpour’s view of New Orleans which was harrowing, dangerous, and nothing like the image that’s been sold to anyone not from there. Most movies in the past have tended to play up the highly-charged, romanticized image of the city and the madcap craziness that most associate with it. Here, Amirpour shows the underbelly of New Orleans in everything from the food to the buildings in a provocative way, creating perhaps the only kind of setting for a story like this to take place.
Mona Lisa (Jeon Jong-seo) is the main character of Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon, a mostly silent girl with telekinetic powers who escapes from an institution with no plan other than getting as far away as she can. Arriving in New Orleans, she encounters several characters, including drug dealer Fuzz (Ed Skrein), down-on-her-luck stripper Bonnie (Kate Hudson), her son Charlie (Evan Whitten), and police officer Harold (Craig Robinson), all of whom want to get ahold of Mona Lisa for various reasons.
Amirpour made a name for herself with her filmmaking debut, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, showing a new voice to the genre and instantly making her a director worth noticing through her stylistic and thematic choices undertones. Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon may differ in terms of scope and approach, but still bears its creator’s stamp. The film’s score is otherworldy, while the visuals, cinematography, and colors all turn the New Orleans of the film into a kaleidoscopic world of dread. Each scene brings one intoxicating shot after another, all of which are squarely at odds with the bleakness of what’s happening in each of them. There’s such a high energy that moves throughout, giving the story a pulsating feeling even when nothing seems to be happening.
All of the technical aspects greatly serve the mysterious figure at the film’s center and help to make the powers she possesses (namely mind control) seem even more magical. There’s a real innocence and purity about the way Mona Lisa observes people and how she decides to use her powers. She uses a judgment system to decide what she does, who she helps, and for what reason. But in a switch from telekinetic characters of the past, it’s a judgment based more on instinct instead of outright punishment. The irony of it is that most everyone she tries to help out ends up using her in one way or another. Through this method, Amirpour challenges the typical likable/unlikable character conventions by inserting each one with a kind of desperation that brings forth moments of surprising vulnerability.
Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon starts by being a beyond-competent survey of the current state of humanity, with surprising character turns given to most of the people Mona Lisa comes into contact with. Bonnie’s very own self-awareness makes the degrading character even sadder when we realize how much she’s given up on herself. Charlie shows a child wise beyond his years, struggling in many ways with the same issues as Mona Lisa. Fuzz, meanwhile, reveals an unselfishness that’s impossible to see coming, foregoing any preconceived notions we might have had about him. If only the same care could be taken to the character of Mona Lisa herself. But the film’s most interesting character is sadly the least explored in favor of advancing the story she’s in. If the film doesn’t fully live up to its potential, it’s because it insists on being plot-driven in the latter half, undermining any surrealness and social commentary it was making before.
These characterizations are brought to life with force and commitment by each of the well-cast actors. As the title character, Jong-seo is so magnetic, holding on to the more mysterious aspects of the character, while also ensuring that the audience sees the wonder and curiosity inherent within her. Hudson has the flashiest character within the film and quickly abandons any of her movie star persona to embody this decidedly degenerate character. Her scenes with Whetten stand out because of this as well as the fact that the young actor has such a winning presence and a real grasp on what his character is facing.
Skrein disappears into his role, showing once again a lack of fear when it comes to transforming himself into whatever questionable character he’s tasked with taking on. If there’s one actor who struggles, it’s Robinson, who doesn’t seem to know who his thinly-written character is, despite trying his best to deliver.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what kind of film Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon could have been, or even, what it is in its current state. Its aim for crafting a telling social commentary as well as an exercise in surrealist filmmaking. But these intriguing ambitions get bogged down in the mechanics of its plot with the director focusing on moving the action along at the expense of the promise of an ethereal and telling film experience. I can imagine another version of Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon, one focused solely on Mona Lisa and Charlie; two neglected individuals who encounter one another and bond over an adventure they embark on after escaping the nightmares that are their respective worlds. Yet that isn’t the film we got. Despite the missteps however, Amirpour still proves herself to be a filmmaker with one of the most interesting cinematic eyes around.