Andrew Dominik's "Blonde" is meant to be a tough sit, endured, more than a harsh, often miserable life, examined. Wrong mission. But mission accomplished.
Any halfway-serious exploration of the Marilyn Monroe story must reconcile the endurance test of her 36 years — abuse, humiliation, infantilization, addiction and ultimate ruination — with the legend. Under the same skin, she was many things. A human being; an honest, often affecting actor; a deft, warmhearted comedian; and an undeniable star, struggling for respect and for deliverance from a maze of unforgiving celebrity.
Ana de Armas is very good, and I wish that mattered more. She goes all in as Norma Jeane/Marilyn, the preyed-upon young girl and the miracle of strategic, studio-molded allure she became. It's not a dual role, exactly, but it's not quite a before-and-after, either. The little girl, lost, is never absent in the adult Marilyn here.
Compressing Joyce Carol Oates' long novel down to two hours and 45 minutes, Dominik maintains strict, even suffocating visual and rhythmic control of this fictional/factual Marilyn tragedy. Practically every scene works toward the same goal, to the same lugubrious, narcoticized rhythm. Marilyn, defending herself against a proven or potential exploiter or abuser. First it's her mother (the excellent Julianne Nicholson); then it's agents, managers, moguls and blackmailers. Then it's a famous abusive retired baseball star husband (Bobby Cannavale in the Joe DiMaggio role) and a couple of Kennedys, here unnamed.
As did Oates' 2000 novel, "Blonde" deploys leaps and jerks out of one reality into another. After pregnancies either wanted or unwanted, we're shown Marilyn communicating with her unborn babies, and there are more than trace elements of pity and scorn in the way Dominik handles this. Adrien Brody plays Arthur Miller, depicted here as the least of Monroe's male nightmares.
Chronologically, "Blonde" runs from 1933 to 1962, flitting back and forth, here and there. Dominik manipulates images and changes frames to suit the psychic claustrophobia at hand, adjusting the screen size and aspect ratio depending on the impulse. He and cinematographer Chayse Irvin favor high-contrast black-and-white, clashing deliberately with the too-sunny Kodachrome color glare of Monroe's final years.
Some of the visual transitions are striking, as when de Armas' Monroe — eternally in search of the father she never knew, and the "daddy" replacements she married — is superimposed, clutching blinding white sheets in bed, against a raging waterfall from her 1953 drama "Niagara."
But Oates' novel does not adapt easily. And all "Blonde" is, really, is pain, pity and pretty pictures.
Dominik drains the complication and, saddest of all, the screen wiles, from a plainly complicated legend. Like David Fincher's "Mank," "Blonde" creates some plush visual ideas of Old Hollywood, without quite capturing how movies looked and moved then. And in its relentlessness of punishment and purpose, it harks back to Bob Fosse's "Star 80."
The movie is a clinical cry for help on behalf of the blonde at its center, circling the drain, victimized to the last. And in the end, this sleek hypocrite of a picture is just another user.
1.5 stars out of 4
Rated: NC-17 for some sexual content.
Where: In theaters and on Netflix starting Wednesday.