I’m going to apologize in advance if this review gets away from me. I typically try to offer some semblance of structure to these things, but “Blonde” is a whole different kind of beast I’m not entirely sure how to battle. For one, it is nearly 3 hours long, and regardless of content, that is a mountain of film to unpack. At the same time it is also extremely unfocused and scattershot, bouncing from one scene to the next with little to no discernibility of who or what we’re suppose to be watching. “Blonde” feels like someone looked at a gorgeous puzzle then blasted it with a shotgun, shattering fragments of beautiful images outwards in sprawling, narrative debris. It is truly shocking how much there is to say about “Blonde” considering the film doesn’t really have all that much to say about itself. What it does have to say is as unsettling and disturbing as its graphic nature, and the indecisiveness and downright nastiness of its framework makes it a hard watch for even the most avid of avant-garde cinema fans.
“Blonde” is written and directed by Andrew Dominik, and based on the acclaimed and controversial novel of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates. This is a passion project for Dominic, who has spent the better part of a decade advocating for the making of this film. For the life of me, I can’t understand why, but we’ll dig into that later when we talk about his relationship to the material (or lack there of). The film is a fictionalized reimagining of the tragic life of Marilyn Monroe, spanning from her childhood to the height of her career to her untimely and tragic death. It is very important to note that while “Blonde” is about a very real person and depicts the equally real people that entered and left her life, this is unequivocally a fictional tale and NOT a biopic.
Kind of. The film can’t really make up its mind about which one it wants to be, going out of its way to recreate real life events, even filming her death on Monroe’s actual deathbed. This is incredibly cruel and I can’t believe the production was allowed to do that, and as we unpack “Blonde” more, come back to this choice and see how it sits with you. Knowing what I know now having finished the film, it is another layer of unimaginable disdain for this character, but more on that later. As a general note heading into this, you should definitely go in with the mindset that this is a twice over interpretation of events that largely didn’t happen at all.
I don’t have any real attachment to Monroe, but I’m familiar enough with her established story to be able to discern some fact from fiction. With “Blonde” being released on Netflix (a very, VERY bold choice for the streaming service considering it’s NC-17 rating) it becomes instantly accessible to an entire generation that may know next to nothing about the real life Norma Jean. The film has the potential to convince viewers that this is how it really happened, strengthened by Dominik’s effort to beautifully recreate spot on, shot for shot, image for image recreations of iconic moments from her life. It is just a massive disservice to Monroe and her estate for anyone to watch “Blonde” and believe any of it, and the timing and release of the film (and its imagery) all lend itself to some walking away thinking that it is real. I’m going to say it one more time: “Blonde” is NOT a biopic, and takes massive liberties even from the source material that already took massive liberties from the real life events.
And it’s here where we should start with Andrew Dominik, both his relationship to the source material and his relationship to his own creation. Dominik is a very capable director, with “Killing Them Softly” being one of the most criminally underrated crimes dramas of the last few years. So I actually don’t think it’s a skill issue when it comes to the flaws in “Blonde” as much as it feels like he just doesn’t really like his subject at all. He cares enough to deliver immaculate production and cinematography across the entire film’s run time, but not enough to treat his lead with any kind of humanity. “Blonde” feels like a filmmaker trying to do an ambitious deep dive at arms length, never questioning why anything should be done, or what he should be saying. He just makes a vast collection of vignettes that look great but have very little meaning behind them. In doing so, not only is it narratively all over the place, but Dominik is focused on one thing and one thing only in the life of Marilyn Monroe: trauma. Context be damned, too, because “Blonde” is a scathing reimagining of his subject with little nuance and little concern for whoever his story may or may not be based on.
Dominik is almost obsessed with the trauma of his character, ignoring large chunks of the complexity of someone both saved and destroyed by fame and only interested in the damage. “Blonde” emphasizes trauma porn over trauma recognition, and with every new moment that unfolds in Monroe’s life he constantly drives us back to it, over and over and over again for 3 hours. It is exhaustingly nasty, almost as if Dominik hates Marilyn Monroe and wants the world to see her as nothing but a whore chewed up and spit out by men with a few movies under her belt. Truthfully, “Blonde” would work better if it was just all fictionalized and vague, just a nameless actress in the 1950s struggling to make it big in Hollywood and be loved, with its Monroe connection serving as inspiration rather than actual interpretation. “Blonde’s” strange combination (without rhyme or reason either) of highly fictionalized and stylized reimagining juxtaposed against a biopic format seems to add a layer of vitriol and spitefulness towards the real person without sympathy or empathy.
“Blonde” is brutal and just downright nasty, boiling an entire life of complexity and tragedy down to daddy issues and not much else. That seems to be all he thinks about her, and no amount of beautiful imagery can make up for the fact that Dominik sees a whore who just needs a daddy to be complete. I know I keep using that word, and I don’t like using it in this derogatory context, but “Blonde” truly has this ideal at its core, and every single thing Monroe does is motivated by or viewed through this very lens. I simply can’t understand why someone with this much dismissiveness and disdain for her would go out of his way to make a near visual masterpiece. And it is visually stunning, with some genuine care and craftsmanship going into creating and/or recreating some magnificent shots. But it all means nothing because Dominik doesn’t really care about what it means. “Blonde” is as exploitative as the exploitation it depicts, and without nuance or actual care for its subject, you’re left to interpret the mean spirited nature yourself.
I’ll get to Ana De Armas in a minute, but I want to take one more swing at what I mean when I talk about “Blonde’s” lack of nuance. Warning: there are two abortions and one accidental death graphically depicted in this film. At a time when this subject is at all time high for controversy, the inclusion of not one but two abortions better have something to say about it one way or another. If you’re going to go there, you HAVE to give us a reason why, and “Blonde” does not. It comes across as what a man thinks women think about abortion, and because he approaches everything with imagery first, meaning a very distant second, he leaves these scenes open for interpretation or worse yet, and trojan horse affirmation of one side. Intentioned or not, “Blonde” leaves itself open to be a harrowing vindication of pro-life, which is in direct contrast to pretty much everything else in Monroe’s life, both in reality and in this work of fiction. But you see, it’s this kind of filmmaking that has nothing to say about its own ambition, and comes across as controlled chaos. “Blonde” feels like Dominik walked onto set every day with a new idea and just ran with it, regardless of whether or not it contributed to the overall story. He doesn’t care about Marilyn anyway, and what he does care about he exploits with the same kind of misogyny he thinks he’s critiquing.
Ok, NOW we can talk about Ana De Armas. She’s flawless here, no notes. In all seriousness, she is truly going for it, with “Blonde” being yet another vehicle that demonstrates just how dazzling she is onscreen. De Armas has the true “it” factor, the kind of indescribable thing we can’t quite define but know it when we see it. De Armas has that, and it shows time and time again, with “Blonde” being no exception. You can see why she was such a delight in “No Time To Die,” having wrapped up in this dark, heartbreaking, and psychologically fragmented mind for so long during filming here. De Armas IS “Blonde,” and while there are plenty of familiar faces that come and go throughout the life depicted (real or not), none of the matter or have enough to do outside of De Armas as Marilyn. She is a powerhouse here, and while Dominic is solely focused on constantly breaking her down with trauma after trauma, De Armas does her best to add the only nuance and complexity to her character. The accent slips from time to time, but she’s giving every inch (quite literally) of herself to this role that it never once bothered me. The nature of “Blonde” and its graphic, unsettling depiction paired with its controversial existence will probably keep her off many of the award lists this year, but it must be said that she deserves recognition and praise for delivering greatness in a film that is actively trying to break her down.
In the end, I don’t really know what to do with “Blonde.” It left me feeling repulsed and depressed, and not in the ways I like when I watch challenging and controversial films. It just doesn’t sit right with me, and its exploitative nature paired with its obsession with trauma makes me more angry that the film was made in the first place than at anyone that used and abused Monroe. That should not be the case, but “Blonde” is so distant and uninterested in her humanity that it’s hard not to feel hollow and empty even as it graphically depicts sexual assault, abuse, abortion and addiction. All of that is in “Blonde,” and you should enter with caution and know that upfront, because it is unrelenting. It is visually stunning, and Dominik is one helluva a visual filmmaker. But he misses the mark narratively here, and even worse misses the opportunity to let those visuals say something meaningful about someone so iconic.
We have enough Monroe biopics and interpretations, and “Blonde” certainly doesn’t make the case for adding one more to the list.
And to you Dominik, if you don’t have anything, and I mean ANYTHING nice to say about someone, you probably shouldn’t say it all. Let alone take 3 hours to tell us how much you dislike Marilyn Monroe.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Stars
“Blonde” is now streaming on Netflix. It is rated NC-17 for explicit sexual content. You can watch the trailer below.