Movies are excursions into artifice — invented storylines, constructed sets — made real by the transformative power of belief, their immersiveness compelling audiences to wholly buy into a lie that they fully recognise as one. Few understand and exploit this duality better than Andrew Dominik, who has spent his filmmaking career examining the myths propped up by collective delusion and deconstructing them with uncommon insight.
That is, until his latest, Blonde, which traces screen icon Marilyn Monroe's journey from an unwanted child to the feverish object of public want. “In the movies, they chop you all to bits. Cut, cut, cut,” says the actress, played by Ana de Armas. She's speaking of the non-linear way films are shot and pieced together in the edit room, but it's also the lens through which this movie has been shot — a glittering, unsettling, and fragmented kaleidoscope of the actress' life that only reflects the worst parts of it. It captures her many degradations, including rape, sexual harassment, domestic abuse and forced abortion, but its undeniably voyeuristic approach also makes it a participant in them.
The distance between the person and the persona, the construction of a myth, has never been blunter in Dominik's filmography than in this film. Unwanted by her father and abandoned by her mother, Norma Jeane births herself — the alter ego 'Marilyn', always referred to in third person, an entity she alternately clings to and condemns. The only way for Norma to process her life is to see it as a movie in which she's simply playing a role, her pain easier to endure if its infliction is viewed as a scene that will end sometime. It's an affecting approach for a film that ironically doesn’t pay much attention to her acting craft, just the trauma she suffers behind the scenes. In an even more reductive point of view, it attributes all her pain to daddy issues.
The director’s recent interview with Sight and Sound to promote the film is perplexing at best and misogynistic at worst. “Does anyone watch Marilyn Monroe movies?,” he asks the interviewer, before describing Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) as a movie about “well-dressed whores.” Why someone would choose to craft a film around someone they hold such a low opinion of is anyone’s guess, but Dominik’s disdain seeps through the screen, staining the whole of Blonde. One shot looks up from the inside of a toilet bowl as Marilyn vomits into it. Another ventures inside her vagina as during a forced abortion. The film gets caught up in the artifice — the dyed hair, the whispery voice (traces of de Armas’ natural Cuban accent slip through, only heightening the idea of Marilyn as a construct) — and forgets the actress’ natural magnetism, her effervescence and her sharp comic timing.
It’s a shame because Dominik’s past excursions into image-making have been far more astute. His debut film, the crime drama Chopper (2000), begins with the criminal Mark Read (Eric Bana) watching an interview of himself on television — the first sign of the filmmaker’s interest in narratives and how they accrue a life of their own outside their subjects. Throughout the comedy, he accords the criminal with an almost superhuman tendency to brush off injury. Killing Them Softly (2012), by contrast, adopts a more sombre tone. Through two small-time felons who attempt to steal from the mob, Dominik explores masculinity as a performance, a construct with its own set of arbitrary rules. Opening with a shot of the literal trash that blocks the path to a better life and a title card that insistently cuts into then-Presidential hopeful Barack Obama's speech about the "American promise", the director uses the backdrop of the 2008 financial crash to decimate the myths of American exceptionalism and the concept of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. By the end, the idea of America itself is revealed to be an illusion, not the community it's long been envisioned as, but a cold, cutthroat business. What is the American dream but yet another neatly packaged lie sold by the country's corporate interests?
The filmmaker’s finest deconstruction of celebrity and is The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007), which plays out like an elegy to a fallen idol whose worshipper has decided it's time to dismantle the pedestal. The filmmaking itself heightens the suggestion of myth — the expansive 160-minute-long runtime elevates the life and death of a man to the status of an epic, far too to be confined to a shorter film, the mesmeric voiceover amplifies the force of his gravitational pull from the opening drawl. "Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them, rains felt straighter, clocks slowed," it intones.
The 'he' is train robber Jesse James (Brad Pitt) whole identity is one of artifice and careful construction, though what the construct is becomes increasingly unclear as the film progresses. Is it the ideal family man he plays in the downtime between murders? Or the outsized outlaw he reads about in the newspapers, aware of their tendency to embellish and the gaping chasm that lies between him and his legend? Jesse is simultaneously myth — during a nighttime train robbery, he emerges out of the inky darkness like an arm of nature uncoiling — and man, prone to very human illnesses of congestion and insomnia.
The teenaged Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), having grown up reading all about Jesse's exploits, is awed by his stature, eager to ingratiate himself into the gang. It's all too easy for him to succumb to the seductive allure of thinking he knows the man before he's ever met him. He hasn't reckoned on the outlaw's pettiness and paranoia, his deep-seated melancholy and dangerous temper. With a slow-burn tension, the film locates the hollowness of celebrity worship and the exact moment reverence curdles into repulsion. Dominik explores the perils of being so utterly enamoured by the myth of someone, their humanity itself disgusts you. It’s a sentiment he carries over to Blonde but his lack of empathy in depicting the unending, almost repetitive, one-note lows of Norma’s life suggests that he’s succumbed to the same pitfall. None of the director's films have ever been about 'heroes', but he's mustered up far more empathy for his protagonists' flaws before.
In Jesse James, Jesse is at once, larger than life, and inching towards death. Once the titular murder occurs, however, it's less a gunslinging faceoff and more a cornered animal presenting its back to the hunter, one last-ditch effort to turn into eternal suffering into stillness. “"Jesse is obviously kind of depressed, and you see him throughout the movie struggle with the idea of protecting himself — he's certainly allowing cracks to form around him and it seems like he's doing it consciously,” Dominik told Independent in 2007, his answer conveying much more empathy for this protagonist than the one in Blonde. “He seems really indecisive about whether he wants to live or die, and the intention is that it's kind of a tale of assisted suicide.”
Dead, Jesse returns to myth once more, which Robert and his brother exploit through a series of staged reenactments of his shooting — another construct, another modifying of the narrative. They achieve the same stratospheric levels of infamy that Jesse did, but find that brings them just as much misery. Having to live up to the image of you is a slow poison, but so is having to live with yourself.
It's this idea that Blonde is unable to express with the same complexity. In attempting to unpeel the myth of Marilyn, depicted as a lost child underneath it all, Dominik turns her into a blank slate onto which abstract ideas of the Hollywood machine, motherhood and fame can be projected. By the end of the film, viewers will have watched a meticulously embodied Marilyn for close to 167 minutes. They’ll have come no closer to seeing her.