Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon
'A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night' filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour is back with a hyper-saturated, New Orleans-set take on superheroes, scams and strippers.
October 13, 2022
When Ana Lily Amirpour made her spectacular feature filmmaking debut in 2014, and made one of the best movies of that year in the process, she did so with a flick with a killer title: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. That moniker also summed up the picture's plot perfectly, even if the Persian-language horror western vampire film couldn't be easily categorised. Take note of that seven-word name, and that genre-bending approach. When Amirpour next made wrote and directed The Bad Batch, the 2016 dystopian cannibal romance started with a woman meandering solo, albeit in the Texan desert in daylight, and also heartily embraced a throw-it-all-in philosophy. Now arrives her third stint behind the lens, the hyper-saturated, gleefully sleazy, New Orleans-set blend of superheroes, scams and strippers that is Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon — which, yes, features a female protagonist (Jeon Jong-seo, Burning) strolling unescorted again, back under the cover of darkness this time.
Mona initially walks out of a home instead of towards one, however. And Amirpour isn't really repeating herself; rather, she has a penchant for stories about the exploited fighting back. Here, Mona has been stuck in an institution for "mentally insane adolescents" for at least a decade — longer than its receptionist (Rosha Washington, Interview with the Vampire) can remember — and breaks out during the titular lunar event after gruesomely tussling with an uncaring nurse (Lauren Bowles, How to Get Away with Murder). The Big Easy's nocturnal chaos then awaits, and Bourbon Street's specifically, as does instantly intrigued drug dealer Fuzz (Ed Skrein, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) and a determined but decent cop (Craig Robinson, Killing It). With opportunistic pole-dancer Bonnie Belle (Kate Hudson, Music), Mona thinks she finds an ally. With her new pal's kind-hearted latchkey kid Charlie (Evan Whitten, Words on Bathroom Walls), she finds a genuine friend as well.
Amirpour's movies sport a kinetic feel that's as natural to them as breathing is to watching audiences. Her love of movement shines through as brightly as moonlight, too — and Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon is another glowing example. Directed with style and boldness to spare, this is a garish, on-the-go, howling-at-the-sky kind of southern Gothic horror flick, purposefully and strikingly so. Slinking along with it is inescapable, whether Mona is unleashing her supernatural skills, navigating the French Quarter's hustle-and-bustle nighttime vibe, or wholesomely dreaming of a safer future. First, though, Mona has to break out of the bayou-adjacent facility she's been forced to call home, which happens in a grim, revenge-seeking, attention-grabbing fashion. The aforementioned nurse usually spits insults the straightjacketed, catatonic Korean detainee's way, including while clipping her toenails. Then the inmate snaps back into focus — maybe the moon that's stirred her? — and uses her gifts to wreak havoc.
Without touching the nurse, or anyone else she imposes her will upon throughout the movie, Mona can take control of their bodies. There's no flesh-swapping (another spin on Freaky Friday, this isn't); here, via voodoo-esque physical manipulation, Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon's main figure waves her hands or nods her head, then whoever's in her gaze does as she directs. That's a skill that comes in handy once she's out on her lonesome, meandering the city barefoot with threats lurking. It's also a talent that Bonnie observes during a fast-food store car park catfight, with Mona saving her bacon. Deciding that those telekinetic capabilities can be put to cunning, canny and profitable use — look out, strip-club patrons — Bonnie is swiftly offering up her companionship, and her home, although the metal-loving Charlie warns their new houseguest to be wary.
Even if obvious nods to Alice in Wonderland weren't baked into the production design, Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon would play like a fairy tale (a sweaty, seedy, go-where-the-night-takes-you fairy tale, but a type of fairy tale nonetheless). Its namesake wanders through an otherworldly realm, gets caught in perilous situations, learns lessons and benefits from something akin to magic — aka those just-awakened powers — to mosey forward. Thanks to the movie's moral code, she only deploys her paranormal prowess on folks who deserve it, or uses it to save herself, when the decision to bust out the mind control is hers alone. At its core, the film can be that straightforward. That said, it also stems from a director with a history with deceptive simplicity. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was about exactly what its title describes, after all, and yet it was also filled with oh-so-much more.
Starting with easy-to-spot scaffolding, then building a glisteningly distinctive, eagerly detailed flick that couldn't have been crafted by anyone else: that's one of Amirpour's own super skills. Plenty of that pivotal talent comes through visually here, with gloriously atmospheric and neon-soaked help from Hereditary and Midsommar cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski. Indeed, anyone who thinks that style can't also be substance, can't sweep viewers into a film's mood and can't anchor everyone watching in a character's headspace, should be motivated to rethink their position. Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon's manic dance through New Orleans after dark is that immersive — and that means something. As thrust across the screen with scuzzy yet giddy flair, and set to a mesmerising soundtrack as well, this spirited picture proves as keen as can be to skip along with people, survivors all of them, that society usually casts aside.
Speaking of casts: Jeon's magnetic performance is worth erecting an entire movie around, so Amirpour has. Quietly spoken but infinitely expressive in every look and move — and brimming with mystique — the film's lead is hypnotic; understanding why Charlie and Fuzz are so drawn to Mona isn't hard for a second. Young Whitten helps give Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon its sweetness, and a loveable odd-couple buddy-flick centre. Robinson is unsurprisingly effective and engaging as a cop with compassion, and also part of an immensely amusing chase scene. And opposite almost anyone other than Jeon, the mesh singlet-wearing Hudson would steal the show, revelling in getting trashy but remaining savvy. She takes a dauntless swing and it pays off; so does Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon on both counts.
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