Just from the title of Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon, it’s clear that director Ana Lily Amirpour is back with another genre-melting, hyper-stylized romp of a film – and on this front, she doesn’t disappoint. After her moody vampire western debut A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and her follow-up cannibal romance The Bad Batch, Amirpour has established a niche of her own, defined by unexpectedly dangerous female protagonists, surreal interpretations of American settings, and an ability to plaster her films with inspirations and references without compromising on originality.
Whereas the chador-wearing, skateboard-riding protagonist of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night haunted the streets of a city caught somewhere between Iran and Southern California, and the spunky one-legged heroine of The Bad Batch wandered the wasteland of a post-apocalyptic Texas, Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon pairs its leading lady Mona Lisa Lee (Jeong Jong-Seo) with the neon-lit grime of New Orleans’ Bourbon Street.
She’s just escaped from the padded walls of a mental asylum where she’s spent the last twelve years of her life, and she’s heading into town under the eerie glow of a gigantic blood moon. Under the surface of Mona Lisa’s petite size and innocent ignorance of the outside world she carries a dangerous ability: to control people’s actions by looking into their eyes (cued by a disorienting dolly zoom). This power doesn’t quite place her into the category of superhero, though, as she uses it less to administer justice than to evade the dogged New Orleans cop hot on her tail (Craig Robinson) and to scam strip club patrons out of their money with Bonnie Belle (Kate Hudson), the loudmouth dancer who takes her in.
The mind control aspect of Mona Lisa’s character adds a campy twist (reminiscent of Stranger Things’ Eleven, as much for her junk food obsession as for her violent potential), but remains a surface-level deus ex machina device rather than a thematic statement. Her real defining trait is one she shares with Amirpour’s other heroines: an overwhelming sense of otherness and alienation. Society is strange to Mona Lisa, a strangeness exaggerated by cinematographer Paweł Pogorzelski’s distortion lenses and saturated fluorescents. The people she meets along her journey aren’t exactly normal or well-intentioned, either; from the trippy DJ/drug-dealer Fuzz (Ed Skrein) who uses cheese puffs to lure Mona into his car only to accidentally fall in love, to Bonnie, whose initial generosity reveals itself as cold-hearted opportunism.
Mona Lisa’s introduction into society teaches her not to trust appearances. Her true power is this outsider’s perspective, enabling her to cut straight through to people’s motivations with seemingly infantile questions. When Fuzz tells her he wants to kiss her she asks him why, and turns this same intense curiosity to the policeman when she asks him, “Do you like people?”, inspiring sudden moments of self-reflection in those around her.
The only relationship that saves Mona Lisa from cynicism is the one she forges with Charlie (Evan Whitten), Bonnie Belle’s angsty but honest pre-teen son. Their dynamic constitutes the sentimental core of the film in its second half, driving the action as the two attempt to liberate each other from their hostile surroundings. However, the writing and direction fail to deliver the emotional punch needed for the audience to care deeply about their friendship, or about Charlie’s relationship with his mother, or about whatever it is Fuzz feels for Mona (although admittedly, Skrein leans so heavily into the psychedelic absurdity of his character that his charm transcends the script).
Each character is unique and carries their own universe with them. Mona Lisa is a sort of impassive Alice in Wonderland, coming of age as she learns about the world around her, while Charlie is straight out of an eighties movie, and Fuzz may be the long-lost brother of James Franco’s Alien in Spring Breakers. This eclectic family keeps the attention on the screen without fail, but the members feel chosen at random, without a significant raison d’être. So it is with references to culture, as well. From Mona’s origins as a North Korean refugee, to racism towards Asian Americans, to the setting in a predominantly African-American city, contemporary subjects are peppered in for flavor without taking responsibility for their use, and as in Amirpour’s previous work she uses America more as a one-dimensional set rather than a subject for thematic exploration.
Amirpour’s priority is style, and always has been. It’s clear that she wants to make art that feels cool, to achieve those moments of cinematic euphoria when very good music combines with visual flair to render the story irrelevant; the energy takes priority. She succeeded with A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, creating a Jarmusch-esque gritty beauty with Lyle Vincent’s inky black and white cinematography and a playlist spanning from Bei Ru to Farah to White Lies. After some contrived stumbling in The Bad Batch, she’s back on the beat in Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon. Nighttime vignettes outside of a gas station or in the window seat of a diner recall moments of Mystery Train, but neon-drenched scenes in Fuzz’s tricked-out boombox of a car accompanied by a bass-heavy soundtrack from Daniele Luppi and Bottin update the aesthetic for the present.
Even though she hits the stylistic sweet spot multiple times, without a strong emotional underpinning the moments remain in the moment, rather than converging to create a larger and lasting unity. Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon is fun, and creative, and gives the viewer a feeling of liberation via watching characters blithely disregarding societal norms. Amirpour’s signature melting pot of styles, genres, and inspirations reflects better than many other filmmakers the fragmented and overlapping nature of media consumption in our current times, and even if on her third film certain tropes have begun to repeat, her filmmaking still feels fresh. Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon leaves you wanting more from Amirpour’s quirky, surreal, and definition-defying mind, but also wishing that she’ll figure out exactly what it is she wants to say next time.