Forget what you know.
Everyone asks Mona Lisa Lee (Jeon Jong-seo) if she has any friends. It’s the first question that comes to mind when confronting a stranger who looks lost and out of sorts with their surroundings because you want to help them find a safe place and the care of people they can trust. Unfortunately, Mona Lisa can do nothing but shake her head “No” because she’s been locked in a juvenile care facility for a decade: catatonic and in a straitjacket due to “violent tendencies” upon arrival from Korea. Why is she suddenly awake and alert? If the title to Ana Lily Amirpour‘s latest film is any indication, it’s due to lunar activity. Yet blood moons happen about twice a year, so that doesn’t quite explain anything.
Not that it matters considering Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon is less about its stranger-in-a-strange-land’s past than it is the infinite possibilities her future holds. If, of course, she’s able to steer clear of the sprawling police hunt through downtown New Orleans that’s begun since her escape. So, with Officer Harold (Craig Robinson) leading the chase courtesy of his having already experienced her telekinetic superpowers first-hand (she made him shoot himself in the knee when he threatened to arrest her), she’ll need outside help staying off-the-grid. Which of the eccentric weirdoes she stumbles upon will therefore prove trustworthy enough to become that friend she so desperately seeks? Is it Fuzz the drug dealer (Ed Skrein)? Bonnie the exotic dancer (Kate Hudson)? Bonnie’s disgruntled son Charlie (Evan Whitten)?
The obvious answer is “all of the above” in some way shape or form since even those who ultimately betray Mona Lisa are assisting in her journey regardless. Amirpour is more concerned with the motives behind their actions since her lead can take care of herself. Is Fuzz a lech trying to get into Mona Lisa’s pants by way of the cheese puffs she didn’t have money to buy? Sure. Doesn’t mean he’s a bad guy. Did Bonnie ask Mona Lisa to protect her upon getting into a fight with another woman in a burger joint’s parking lot? No. But buying her dinner and giving her a place to sleep as compensation isn’t necessarily altruistic. Expectations are thus always being flipped. Humanity is messy that way.
Amirpour delivers one transaction after another and leans into the sleaziness of her setting to push the boundaries of those exchanges with as much heart as violence. Fuzz wants a kiss for the snacks. Mona Lisa takes his shirt and offers nothing in return. Mona Lisa uses her powers to hurt Bonnie’s foe and the latter uses her as a weapon to fleece the punks at her club into tipping all their money. And it’s all presented as a lark. There’s a comedic angle wherein those dismissed as weak are given the opportunity to be powerful before finding they can’t help but gloat in the aftermath. So, as Dice (Tiffany Black) warns towards the end of the second act, karma is coming. Because their unsuspecting victims don’t forget.
That’s all part of the game, though. By allowing those impacted by Mona Lisa’s power to remember what she made them do (and the feeling of helplessness while doing it), those characters are supplied the chance to react. Take those unwitting tippers. Does losing their money become a learning experience to realize they should have tipped Bonnie more than two dollars and toned down their sanctimonious entitlement? Or will they let it fuel their already raging misogyny in a bid for payback? Look at Officer Harold too. Will becoming cognizant of the fact that he went against orders to try and apprehend Mona Lisa by himself due to her “seeming harmless” give him pause later? Will he discover his badge means absolutely nothing opposite true strength?
It leads to some memorable performances. Because despite playing everything straight, there’s some real chaotic stuff happening. Skrein is having a blast playing a dirtbag white trash stereotype daring us to conjure negative preconceptions before subverting almost every one of them. Hudson is doing the same in the opposite manner—using those who present themselves as a tool for her betterment until their utility runs dry. The way she gives the bouncer at her club (Cory Roberts‘ Snacky) food and drink whenever she comes in is pure bribery knowing she can cross some lines with him at her back. It’s the same with Mona Lisa. Give her the bare minimum to be happy (anything is better than what she endured in captivity) and get rich off her powers.
The dynamic provides ample room for memorable scenes too. Officer Harold coming to Bonnie’s work to apprehend her and Mona Lisa (both are caught on-camera taking victims’ money even if that same footage shows the victims giving it away) shouldn’t be funny. By giving Hudson high-heel shoes and Robinson a cane, however, we’re suddenly watching one of the slowest chase scenes in cinematic history. He keeps yelling their names to stop and Bonnie keeps dragging Mona Lisa through the crowded New Orleans nightlife without turning back. It’s only too perfect that they finally hit a dead-end and start panting despite nobody ever going faster than a power walk. That’s the tone Amirpour wields from the start, so use it as a litmus test for whether you should watch.
Even if that pacing and comedy isn’t your thing, however, it’s impossible not to enjoy the underlying message of kindness. One of Mona Lisa’s best traits (Jeon effortlessly toes the line between innocent and angry) is the fact she isn’t malicious. She’s not trying to just hurt people because she can. You must force her either by standing in the way or inflicting harm. All these people could have just walked away and ignored her struggle. That they don’t therefore means something. Some don’t possess pure intentions, but even they started by offering help. What’s more important then? Exploiting a new friendship for self-enrichment or returning the favor by offering some back? You can use your rage to victimize others or remember its pain and set them free.
courtesy of Saban Films