Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Ana Lily Amirpour
Stars: Kate Hudson, Jeon Jong-seo, Craig Robinson, Ed Skrein, Evan Whitten, Lauren Bowles.
With its violent opening, Mona Lisa And The Blood Moon almost sits comfortably in horror movie territory. But is much more. The genre bending Mona Lisa And The Blood Moon is never predictable, which is one of its strengths. This is the third feature from Iranian/English director Ana Lily Amirpour (best known for her 2014 stylish but creepy vampire debut film A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night), and is arguably her best yet. It serves up an unusual mix of supernatural horror, crime thriller and drama. Many of its characters are outsiders and misfits and some are unlikeable, but they are all nonetheless interesting. Amirpour has a distinctive visual style, and her direction is stylish. As she did with her debut feature Amirpour suffuses the film with a similar sense of unease and menace and growing dread.
When we first meet the titular character, Mona Lisa (played by Korean actress Jeon Jong-seo, from the 2018 drama Burning, etc) she is an inmate in a high security asylum located outside the city. Seemingly catatonic, she is confined in a strait jacket. But she apparently possesses a special psychokinetic power that has been dormant for years. But with a full moon lighting up the night sky it gives birth to her power. Mona Lisa has the power to use her mind to force others to act in a certain way once she makes eye contact with them. She effects an escape from the asylum and wanders the streets of New Orleans.
She is befriended by Bonnie (Kate Hudson), a single mother and streetwise stripper who witnesses Mona’s power when she saves her from being beaten up outside a diner by an abusive bully. Sensing potential in Mona’s powers, Bonnie takes her home, but she is only interested in exploiting her powers to make money for herself. She uses Mona Lisa to get people to take money from their ATM and bolster her takings at The Panty Drop, the strip club where she works. Her young son Charlie (Evan Whitten) is appalled by her selfishness and sets out to help Mona get away, with some help from a local drug dealer named Fuzz (Ed Skrein, in a role originally intended for Zac Efron before he turned it down.) The friendship that develops between Charlie, who is largely ignored by Bonnie, and Mona Lisa gives the film its emotional core.
Meanwhile hapless and awkward but essentially decent local cop Harold (Craig Robinson) is on Mona’s trail, determined to stop her hurting anybody else. His one encounter with Mona ended badly as he was forced to shoot himself in the leg while in a hypnotic state.
The film is evocative of a vibrant New Orleans with its bustling, glittering and neon lit streets of the French Quarter, but it also reveals a more sleazy and darker side of the city with its strip clubs and dark alleys full of nascent threats. There are some mesmerising and garish visuals from Polish cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski (Midsommar, etc), and the superb soundtrack and score features some underground independent musicians. The film is steeped in atmosphere.
Amirpour draws good performances from her cast. Cast against type Hudson is excellent as the trashy and selfish Bonnie and she delivers a bold, brassy performance that ranks as one of her best. Whitten is also superb and demonstrates a maturity beyond his years with this provocative material. Robinson usually does comedy, and although there are some touches of humour to his character, this is a more dramatic role, and he is effective and brings a dogged quality to his performance. And Jong-seo is fine as the enigmatic and taciturn Mona Lisa, who doesn’t say much. We learn little about her background or how she acquired her strange power, and a healthy suspension of disbelief is required here.
The film follows an unpredictable narrative arc but the longer it went on the more I became caught up in it and enjoyed it.