Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon (2022)
Written & Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour
When I finally made myself sit down and watch Ana Lily Amirpour’s feature debut, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, I was very impressed with the mix of style & storytelling. It was atmospheric but restrained in all the right ways. The film was clearly a creator’s unique perspective translated into film, combining elements from various genres, and it just worked. I could see the influence of Iranian cinema in her work, but also pieces from pop culture and things she had come to love throughout her life. It made me excited about what she might do next. Then she released The Bad Batch, and I was overcome with embarrassment. That movie is awful. Maybe her third attempt would bring us back to that original magic; she was just experiencing the “sophomore slump.” Unfortunately, I don’t think she was.
Mona Lisa (Jeon Jong-seo) has trouble remembering when she wasn’t in the asylum, but she definitely wants out. The staff thinks she’s catatonic most of the time but discovers she can control people’s bodies when she looks them in the eye. Once she’s out on the streets of New Orleans, everything is an object of wonder for Mona. However, the police are on her tail, and Officer Harold (Craig Robinson) has heard there’s an escaped mental patient and thinks he’s found her. Mona makes him shoot himself in the foot before running deeper into the city. There she meets an exotic dancer, Bonnie Belle (Kate Hudson), who decides to help this naive young woman. Bonnie realizes she’s stumbled upon a gold mine when Mona uses her powers to get some cheapskate college bros to hand over all their cash. Mona ends up bonding with Bonnie’s preteen son Charlie. But our protagonist cannot stay in a place where she’s being hunted by the authorities, and a plan goes into effect.
As someone on Letterboxd said succinctly, “What a gorgeous bore.” That about sums up Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon, a film with more than enough style but far too little character and, by extension, convincing, sympathetic performances. I think Amirpour is a fantastic production designer and cinematographer, but damn, she just cannot get a good performance out of her actors. I don’t think Kate Hudson is that stellar, to begin with, but I was familiar with Jeon Jong-seo from Burning. She was fantastic in that film, and here she’s…alright. I will say that Craig Robinson did stand out for me because he plays his character so mundanely. This is a man in the middle of an insane scenario, just a guy investigating and trying to help a mentally ill woman. Ed Skrein, a potential suitor of Mona’s, stood out to me as well, and he was playing into the crazier elements of the film. But, overall, I felt bored. The movie only has a little over 90-minute runtime, but I felt every second.
On paper, this is the plot of a 1990s family film thrown in a blender with anime. That’s not necessarily a terrible combination. I know this is someone’s favorite film of the year, or possibly ever, and I don’t fault them for that. However, I could easily see someone who has lived in similar, less fantastical circumstances as Mona but has been similarly mistreated, feeling some catharsis as she makes the people who have mistreated her hurt. The film clearly shows us they deserve it; in the same way, the guards & staff earned what Sarah Conner did to them in Terminator 2, another film I feel Amirpour is evoking here.
The movie’s style got so heavily emphasized that other elements essential to making a successful picture were forgotten. Because Mona is positioned as such an aloof, inhuman character for most of the movie, and we are seeing the world through her eyes, it made sense there would be such a neon-over-fried sensibility. But that also creates this wall between the audience and the characters, everyone is a cartoon to one extent or another, and I never felt like anyone was authentic. I am typically harsh on child actors and will do it again here. The kid playing Charlie is so bad, and it’s likely not his fault. He needed to get better direction; kids need that. They need a guide on set to help them tap into things that aren’t natural at first. He didn’t get that, so he feels like a child acting in a movie from his first scene to his last.
This movie definitely has an audience; I’m just not part of it. I don’t know if I will look forward to Amirpour’s future work with excitement. There are a lot of directors who I’ve loved their initial output and found it wasn’t representative of their larger body of work. I hope the people who love this movie find it because it will hit all the things they are looking for. I’ll keep an eye out to see a radical shift in style from Amirpour. She doesn’t have to go back and mimic everything from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, but I would like to see that sense of restraint & tension return. It’s okay to use every crayon in the box, but you need to make sure each one is used for a purpose; otherwise, it’s just a lot of pretty pictures with little behind them.