Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon (2022)

It’s usually a meaningless cliché when people say they were born in the wrong era, but I would make an exception if I heard it from Ana Lily Amirpour.  Since her 2014 debut A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Amirpour has been making the exact kind of high-style, low-effort hangout indies that earned easy festival buzz in the slacker culture days of the 1990s.  Two films later, it’s getting frustrating to see her drag that proud burnout energy into the 2020s.  It makes sense that her debut was a small-scale genre picture that coasted on laidback cool, but her resources have expanded greatly since then and she’s still making low-effort slacker films with attention-grabbing premises and a snotty “Fuck you” attitude.  The only difference is she’s now armed with celebrity stunt-casting & more extravagant locales.  Her post-apocalyptic cannibal whatsit The Bad Batch remains the most frustrating waste of her Flashy Debut clout to date, but its follow-up telekinetic fairy tale Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon is only a half-step up from that disappointment.  Like her previous two films, Mona Lisa leans back & hangs out in a way that makes you wonder why Amirpour is making high-concept genre films when she’d clearly have more fun making no-concept, character-driven comedies.  The marquee promises a bubblegum pop version of Scanners or The Fury, but Amirpour is more interested in making a neon-lit Clerks.

Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon isn’t bad; it’s just a little underwhelming.  Imagine if Harmony Korine couldn’t afford to be choosy with his projects and settled for making a straight-to-Shudder Gen-Z update of Carrie for an easy paycheck.  The titular Mona Lisa is an escaped mental patient with violent impulses & telekinetic powers.  She’s effectively a blank slate, having grown up in a padded cell with nothing but a straitjacket & a prison cot to keep her occupied.  Like the DaVinci muse, that internal void invites strangers to project meaning & intent onto her, which says more about their worldview than it does about her own personality (especially the freaked-out cops who want to lock her back up and the scheming hustlers who exploit her powers for cash).  This is Horror of the Hassled, as all Mona Lisa really wants is to hang out, eat junk food, and watch trash TV.  Her potential for violent mayhem is only unleashed when people get in the way of those totally reasonable goals.  Instead of seeking revenge in a cathartic Carrie-on-prom-night showdown with all the jerks who hassle her, she seeks moments of calm at corner stores, laundromats, and TV-lit living room couches.  She’s an out-of-time 90s slacker hanging out in a city of desperate, scheming dirtbags who’d all be better off if they just keep their distance and let her vibe.

Although not a great film, Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon was a great programming choice for opening this year’s Overlook Film Festival.  It’s steeped in plenty N’awlins Y’all flavor to acclimate tourists who traveled here for the fest – starting in the swamps outside the city during Mona Lisa’s initial escape before trudging its way down to Bourbon Street strip clubs, frog ribbits bleeding into grimy DJ beats.  It’s also commendable for offering substantial character-actor roles to Kate Hudson (as a Quarter-smart stripper) and Craig Robinson (as the only kind NOPD officer in the history of the department).  Surely there’s an audience out there hungering for Amirpour’s high-concept slacker thrillers, real freaks who’d love to see Joel Potrykus’s own no-effort comedies dressed up in dingy pop soundtracks & Rainbow Store fast fashions.  I most appreciated Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon as a collection of oddball characters in no rush to do anything in particular.  I, too, would love to live a junk-food life unhassled, downing cases of cheap bear in parking lots with metalhead burnouts and chomping my way through well-done hamburgers at the Claiborne Frostop.  I just wish Amirpour would move away from the vampires, cannibals, and telekinetic witches of her film’s flashy premises, since she doesn’t seem motivated to do anything exciting with those conceits.

-Brandon Ledet

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

threehalfstar

A lot of comparisons Ana Lily Amirpour’s vampire-themed A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night has been garnering are to indie director Jim Jarmusch’s 80s work. Indeed, Girls Walks Home has a stark, black & white look to it as well as a preference for a laid-back cool over plot momentum that resembles Jarmusch, who made his own vampire movie last year with Only Lovers Left Alive. However, I found myself thinking of an entirely different film while watching Armipour’s debut feature, albeit another work from the 80s: Kathryn Bigelow’s classic vampire Western Near Dark. Near Dark has a similar style-over-substance ethos shared by Amirpour & Jarmusch, but it fits in with Girl Walks Home a lot closer thematically than any other work I can recall. This thematic similarity is apparent in the gender-swapped vulnerability in characters’ sexual desire. Both A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night & Near Dark feature a young woman venturing alone in public after sunset & being solicited by strange, potentially dangerous men. Normally, the woman would be perceived as the vulnerable party in these situations, but their hidden vampirism disrupts the power balance and complicates the tension.

An essential difference between the films is that Near Dark abandons the idea of vampiric, gender-swapped nightstalking early on to focus on unconventional ideas of family, while A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night develops the concept into a feature length film. Much like its title, the film itself has a quiet, dangerous sort of beauty to it that is amplified by its Iranian setting. Pantomimed felatio, prostitution, and concerns about the impropriety of being alone with the opposite sex feel all the more dangerous when considered in the context of the draconian culture that surrounds them. A decidedly feminist bent turns the tables on these vibes and makes victims out of the men who would be the most likely perpetrators in these situations. The film’s central vampire punishes pimps & rapists and scares children into being good little boys for the rest of their lives. She’s more of a (murderous) Batman or a Miss Meadows than a Dracula in this way. Not everything she does is right & justified (there’s an encounter with a homeless victim that calls her moral code into question), but there’s a general sense that she’s righting a wrong in her encounters with the dangerous men she haunts.

Of course, as a debut, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night has a few kinks that could be worked out. It’s a very showy, stylish film that suggests Armipour has a lot of fascinating work in her that we’ll be treated to in the coming years. At the same time, it’s a little misshapen & awkwardly paced and its showiness occasionally risks a sort of indie movie triteness. Its imagery milks a lot of atmosphere out of stray cats, spinning records, skateboarding, and heroin abuse that sometimes works extremely well & sometimes comes off a little like a 90s Calvin Klein ad. When it’s firing on all cylinders, though, such as in a particularly effective makeup application scene or when the vampire is casually flipping through a victim’s CD collection after a kill, it’s a very memorable, humorous, and visually gorgeous work that will be likely to stick in the public consciousness for a while to come. The distillation of my favorite aspect of Near Dark & its working-class vibes in lines like, “Idiots & rich people are the only ones who think things can change,” also combine to make it an endearing film to me, personally. Based on what I’ve seen here, I’m very much excited to see where Armipour’s efforts go in the future.

-Brandon Ledet