Film Review: Poor Things
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Film4 and Element Pictures
In Theaters: 12.22
The holiday season is a time for some to celebrate miracles and a divine birth. On that level, Poor Things, a wild and audacious new gothic horror/fantasy sex comedy, makes for surprisingly appropriate Christmas viewing.
Bella (Emma Stone, La La Land), a distraught, young pregnant woman, leaps off a bridge into a watery grave. This is only the beginning of her story, however, as a visionary and highly unconventional scientist, Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project, Spider-Man) performs an unconventional procedure, putting the brain of the live infant in the body of the dead mother and reanimating them (the Supreme Court has yet to weigh in on this one). Bella re-enters the world with “God”—a nickname for Godwin—as her guide , teaching her a little while mostly encouraging her to learn and develop on her own. Bella rapidly progresses and yearns to learn and experience more every day. When she discovers sexual pleasure, Bella’s desire leads to the rash decision to leave home in the company of the rakish Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo, Avengers, Foxcatcher), a morally corrupt attorney who is visiting Godwin, and they traverse the globe engaging in hedonistic adventures. As Bella becomes more aware and sophisticated, she develops her own moral compass, a desire to be free from the shackles of anyone else’s expectations and a determination to be an advocate for justice, equality and freedom.
Poor Things is the very definition of “not for all tastes,” and anyone who is easily offended by sexual content or the macabre is unlikely to make it through the full 141 minute runtime. On the other hand, the arresting visuals, keen observations on the nature of humanity and mortality and madcap humor suggest that Swedish existentialist Ingmar Bergman and Monty Python alumnus-turned-director Terry Gilliam just got back from a steampunk convention and decided to collaborate on a movie, and that’s quite irresistible. Screenwriter Tony McNamara (The Favourite, The Great), adapting from the novel by Alasdair Gray, keeps the sparklingly funny dialogue and bizarre situations coming one right after another, and director Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Favourite) moves the first half of the film at a brisk pace. The second half of it becomes a bit uneven, although it’s when some of the most meaningful story elements and themes bear fruit. The constant parade of graphic nudity and sex simply reaches a point where it’s not so much uncomfortable as it is tedious. Some of this is intentional, as Bella’s quest to understand both pleasure and power dynamics is meant to lead to an interest in more than sex, but there’s still a need for just a bit of judicious editing for the sake of story flow. The introduction of new characters in the final third leads to some thoughtful and interesting twists, however.
Stone’s performance drives Poor Things every step of the way, and to call it a masterful and fearless feat of comic and dramatic acting somehow feels like an understatement. Beginning the film with the intellect of a young toddler and ending it as an intelligent and independent young woman, Bella grows up right in front of our eyes, and Stone captures every moment of wonder, sensation and epiphany with an authenticity that makes hers the performance of the year by nearly any standard. More problematic is Ruffalo, who captures the oily narcissism nicely, yet also gives us a genuine contender for the worst and most grating English accent in movie history. While Ruffalo’s ability with dialects retroactively turns Kevin Costner‘s take on Robin Hood into an unmitigated triumph, it doesn’t completely ruin the performance, much less the movie. Still, for my money, if we’re singling out supporting actors, Dafoe is far more deserving of praise for his campy and complex portrayal of the wannabe Frankenstein, and he’s easily the most interesting character apart from Bella herself. Christopher Abbott (On The Count of Three, Sanctuary) is terrific as Alfie Blessington, a character who is pivotal to the third act, though Abbott isn’t given time to give the character the kind of depth that he normally brings to a role.
Poor Things is far and away the most unique film of the year, though whether it’s among the best is more debatable. I found it to be a remarkable achievement, made with with endless creativity and commitment, that occasionally gets so caught up in the determination to push the envelope that it teeters on the edge of prioritizing it at the expense of everything else. It pulls itself out of that rut, however, and in the end, it’s an artful and visionary film that people will be talking about for many years to come. –Patrick Gibbs