Writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour makes movies that can’t be easily categorized. Her 2014 debut, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, established this by being a contemporary feminist Persian-language vampire Western filmed in a California ghost town. Her latest, Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon, is a little less eccentric, but no less unique and enjoyable.
In a dark pocket of New Orleans, a disgruntled patient (Jun Jong Seo of Netflix’s Money Heist: Korea - Joint Economic Area) breaks out of the local “home for mentally insane adolescents” and hits the streets still wearing her straitjacket. This vivid image is only a slight comedown from the fantastical method by which she escaped: gruesomely deploying what appear to be superpowers of mind control. First, she makes a nurse stab herself with a pair of nail clippers, then—after purloining several handfuls of cheese puffs—guides an orderly to bash his head into a TV screen. Despite this harrowing introduction, it’s instantly impossible not to root for her. This feeling only builds throughout Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon, which achieves the remarkable feat of making us care about almost all of its deeply flawed characters.
That includes Fuzz (Deadpool’s Ed Skrein), a cheesy DJ who is off-putting at first but eventually offers great help to our heroine; Harold (Craig Robinson), a New Orleans cop who sees what the girl is capable of and becomes obsessed with tracking her down; and Bonnie (Kate Hudson), a Bourbon Street strip-club dancer and single mom who dubs her new friend “Mona Lisa,” then swiftly sets about exploiting her powers for monetary gain.
Most of the movie takes place at night, with copious shots of the moon lending a cosmic element to Mona Lisa’s neon-lit wanderings. Once she meets Bonnie, she’s introduced to the danger-prone life of a hustler, as well as the character in the movie who is most like her: Bonnie’s 11-year-old son, Charlie (Evan Whitten), who understands Mona Lisa’s strange mix of childlike wonder and deep suspicion about the world. It becomes clear that despite her willingness to use her powers to cause harm and violence, Mona Lisa—who we eventually learn hails from North Korea and was held in the hospital for over a decade—is really just interested in figuring out her place in a world she’s never experienced, guided by a fundamentally good heart despite all she’s been through. Imagine an older, more hostile Eleven from Stranger Things with slightly different abilities and way fewer conspiracy theories swirling around; when Bonnie asks Mona Lisa “How’d you do that?”, the answer is “I don’t know,” and the movie doesn’t push it any further.
It would be easy for Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon to introduce an obvious antagonist. But aside from a couple of grade-school bullies that menace Charlie (you can guess what happens once Mona Lisa meets them) and some vindictive strip-club customers, the movie is more interested in creating surprisingly layered characters who have their own ways of dealing with this strange magic that’s suddenly entered their otherwise unglamorous lives. Robinson is excellent as Harold, whose deep, existential terror of Mona Lisa isn’t quite enough to prevent him from becoming fixated on her case, nor does it stop him from giving her a very solid piece of advice: “You can’t fix yourself by hurting other people.” Hudson’s role is much flashier, but Bonnie remains likable if not entirely sympathetic throughout. We understand, even if Charlie doesn’t, why Bonnie takes advantage of Mona Lisa, and we get a clear picture of what her life has been like to that point to inform her choices.
Best of all, though, is Jun, whose Mona Lisa is naive and sheltered but not stupid, and has the considerable advantage of being able to take care of herself no matter what dicey situation she finds herself in. Amirpour’s distinctively drawn characters and her often surprising camerawork work well with Mona Lisa’s visual style—the film’s palette favors bright, colorful lights popped against dark streets—and the music peppered throughout that’s loud enough to almost feel intrusive (but not quite). This story could’ve skewed total supervillain; that it manages to infuse a palpable feeling of hope into its grimy mish-mash of genres, is—to quote something Bonnie says about her partner in crime—a little miracle.
Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon hits theaters, digital, and on demand September 30.
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