A pop-culture pastiche artist, filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour has anchored her now three-strong filmography less around a shared a visual aesthetic or thematic concern than around a very singular vibe: It’s as if the girl walked home alone one night, music in her earbuds, perspective chemically altered, imagination running wild and decided at that moment to spend the rest of her career exploring it in film.
Which is a noble project, don’t get me wrong, especially given the ways Amirpour takes her taciturn female protagonists and sets them loose in wholly different mash-ups. With her debut, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” she spun a Farsi-language vampire tale that followed the beats of a western; and with her follow-up, “The Bad Batch,” she imagined the post-apocalypse as a particularly bad trip to Burning Man.
And now, with “Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon,” which premiered in competition at Venice on Sunday, Amirpour takes on the Big Easy, mixing a heady cocktail of EDM beats, Hollywood treacle and southern sleaze and sipping down Bourbon Street.
Our girl here is Mona Lisa Lee (“Burning” breakout Jeon Jong-seo), a North Korean beneficiary of political asylum, who has spent the better part of a decade locked up in the high-security ward of a different asylum, the Home of Mentally Insane Adolescents. And despite her straightjacket and heavy restraints, Mona Lisa manages her exit with relative ease thanks in no small part to her telekinetic ability to control other people’s bodies once she looks them square in the eyes. Why she decided upon this particular opportunity to escape comes with an easy answer: The film had to start somewhere.
Different fates await the men who fall under Mona Lisa’s spell as she makes her way through the bayous and into town. Poor Officer Harold (Craig Robinson) ends up shooting himself in his own damn knee once he tries to stop her; aspiring DJ and sometimes dealer – in that order, he will not hesitate to say – Fuzz (Ed Skrein, a cousin no doubt to James Franco’s Alien from “Spring Breakers,”) picks up the bill for the young woman’s Cheez-Its and root beer, and end up besotted and down one T-shirt for his troubles.
Only stripper Bonnie Belle (Kate Hudson, camping it up as a supposed swamp queen with the strongest outer-borough accent you ever did hear) remains impervious to Mona Lisa’s powers, and that’s just because she immediately sees the possibility to use them for her own financial gain. And so, if the fugitive inmate walks into Bonnie’s strip club a stranger, she walks out a close confidante, offering a place to crash at Bonnie’s house.
The fact of Mona Lisa’s North Korean origins and of Bonnie’s New Yawk twang takes on a slightly different valence when Mona catches a CNN clip about Trump meeting with Kim Jong-un, but the film doesn’t seem to be making any larger figurative comparison. Amirpour treats this detail as she does the film’s debts to superhero cinema, hasher and raver subcultures and Southern Gothic fiction: They’re all a bunch of floating signifiers, elements of modern culture picked up by the filmmaker’s insect antenna then dreamed up all together onto the screen.
Amirpour is too cool to play spot-the-reference; there are no (*shudder*) “Easter eggs” to be found because she filters her various inspirations — which include a distorted wide-angle lensing reminiscent of time, some four decades ago when Sam Raimi and Joel Coen were considered promising young troublemakers – through her own talent and voice.
That voice finds itself singing another familiar tune from the ’80s and ’90s (though perhaps less so today) as the friendship between Mona Lisa and Bonnie’s neglected son (Evan Whitten) takes over during the film’s second half. Though “Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon” hits those well-known notes once these two misfits learn they can rely on each other, it doesn’t aim for full-on sentimentality, opting to keep its emotional register level tempered in a wash of percussive and slightly sinister EDM.
To aim for any more treacle would hardly fit with Amirpour’s down-tempo approach, and her film is better off for not going down that road. But at the same time, three chilly films into her career, one does wonder how much more this approach can travel.