‘Longlegs’ Review: Maika Monroe and Nicolas Cage Clash in a Chilling, Pulp Nightmare

Filmmaker Osgood Perkins proves to be a master at filling the screen with dread

Maika Monroe in Longlegs (Credit: Neon)

There is an unofficial, but almost universally honored contract that every film critic has signed. It states that we should never ruin the plot of a movie before it comes out. And even afterwards, for at least a few years, we should at least issue a great big “spoiler” warning beforehand. Of course, what qualifies as a “spoiler” can vary from person to person, but I am 100% confident that the resolution to a murder mystery qualifies, and that makes “Longlegs” a little tricky to talk about. At least for now.

“Longlegs” stars Maika Monroe as a rookie FBI agent named Lee Harker, a quiet and piercing young woman who the bureau quickly clocks as, if not psychic, then at least highly intuitive. So — presumably since the movie takes place in the mid-1990s and everyone’s recently watched “The Silence of the Lambs” — they immediately assign her to an unsolved serial killer case under an experienced elder statesman, Agent Carter (Blair Underwood), in the hopes that she’ll see something no one else has.

The serial killer, known only as Longlegs, has a disturbing and seemingly impossible M.O. Somehow he convinces the people in a family to kill each other, without ever touching them or talking to them or walking into their houses. There’s physical evidence, like a Zodiac-style cypher code that links all the crimes together. But nothing points to a culprit or even a clear methodology. It’s just weird, dang it.

One suspects that “it’s just weird, dang it” may have been one of writer/director Osgood Perkins’ instructions to his film crew. Perkins is arguably the modern master of dread. His films “The Blackcoat’s Daughter,” “I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House” and “Gretel and Hansel” practically sweat discomfort. His style is formed from half-dreamy camera movements and frames that look only slightly out of alignment. Andrés Arochi is his cinematographer, and together they’ve made the scariest-looking film in recent memory. In “Longlegs” even an establishing shot of a house can make you panic.

For the majority of “Longlegs,” Perkins’ macabre imagery and enigmatic storytelling drills itself through you, until you’re unable to move from your seat. Over the course of four feature films he’s somehow filtered all of the human decency of his atmosphere until only fear and oppression remain. God damn it, this movie is disquieting.

But what actually lives in that atmosphere? That’s a more complicated question. “Longlegs” starts out as a serial killer procedural, but as the tale unfolds, it’s unclear how literally we’re supposed to interpret its eerie images, and whether the story is actually supposed to make sense or if it’s just supposed to leave you unbalanced and uncertain. 

It’s at this point that it would be damn convenient to simply talk about the film’s ending, but there’s no sense ruining that now. Suffice it to say that when entering the world of “Longlegs” you should expect to have your preconceived notions of airplane novel serial killer stories challenged. You’ll get more mileage out of this film the more open you are to its oddness.

Whether you love where “Longlegs” takes you or not, you’re going to have a creepy time getting there. Monroe cuts through her scenes like a knife, this typically energetic performer keeping anything resembling joy locked deep inside. Or maybe she’s simply thrown it all out. Harker is a grim tour guide through this cold and merciless world of loneliness and violence. When we meet her mother, Ruth (Alicia Witt), a shut-in with a hoarder’s house full of mysteries and clues, we get some sense of how Agent Harker got this way, until we find out more. Maybe too much.

And then of course there’s Nicolas Cage, who plays the title villain, and can be found caked under thick white makeup and a ratty wig. It’s quizzical that Osgood Perkins went so overboard with Longlegs as a character. His look is straight out of a Tim Burton film, his motives have leapt off the pages of a satanic panic Jack T. Chick tract and his methods could have come from a Silver Age comic book. He’s an over-the-top villain in a film otherwise defined by graveness and gravity. The film almost breaks upon his arrival, transforming into something wholly unexpected, but not necessarily more effective.

“Longlegs” doesn’t want you to get your bearings. I watched it over a week ago and I’m still searching for mine. What’s clear is that as a stylist, Perkins is at the top of his game. Maybe even the top of anyone’s game. As a storyteller, he’s either a bold innovator or just slapping dream logic onto old-fashioned pulp. Either way “Longlegs” is a horrifying motion picture, if not Perkins’ best than at least his most striking. And when it strikes it leaves a mark.


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