FILM REVIEW – HER SMELL. With Elisabeth Moss, Cara Delevingne, Virginia Madsen, Eric Stoltz, Amber Heard. Written and directed by Alex Ross Perry. Rated R for language throughout and some drug use. 134 minutes.
Like the recent Natalie Portman vehicle “Vox Lux,” the oddly-named HER SMELL is a portrait of female rock star who has enjoyed great success, let it go to her head and became a monster in the process, and making the attempt to find out if her life will have a second act. What makes it fascinating is a no-holds-barred performance by Elisabeth Moss, best known for her roles on the small screen in “Mad Men” and “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Moss is Becky, the leader of the punk rock band “Something She.” When we meet her, they’re still pulling in an audience but the signs for the future are not good. Her ex-husband (Dan Stevens) is raising their daughter, whom she barely sees. Her entourage includes a couple of charlatans engaging in pseudo-religious rituals. She’s abusive to everyone, from the co-founder of the band (Cara Delevigne) to the owner of her record label (Eric Stoltz) to her mother (Virginia Madsen).
Among the signifiers that she may have overstayed her time in the spotlight is that the best offer the band has is to go on tour with Zelda Zekiel (Amber Heard), a performer for which they were once the opening act. Becky sees this as a step backwards. Perhaps the cruelest sign is the arrival of three young women who idolized Becky and jump at the chance to perform with her, reminding her that she’s been around long enough that her fans have now become potential rivals.
Writer/director Alex Ross Perry mixes these scenes of Becky’s breakdown with footage of the band’s early days, so we can see how far she has come and how far she has fallen. One of life’s tragedies is achieving great success and then losing it especially when, as here, it’s the drinking and drug use and lack of responsibility that causes her to be her own worst enemy. We get much more than is needed to make the point (some 90 minutes of the 134-minute film), but it’s obvious where her life’s trajectory is leading. The third act is her way back, where it’s an open question whether she has the strength and the will to do it.
While the supporting cast is good – with Delevigne and Heard among the standouts – this really is a tour-de-force for Moss, playing a character who for much of the film is utterly unsympathetic. That she gains our sympathy, as in a scene where she’s at the piano with the young daughter who barely knows her, is a credit to the actress. On the page her potential redemption might have seemed formulaic, but Moss gives us a credible look at someone who’s hit the heights, and then rock bottom, and is willing to strive for that second chance.
As a narrative “Her Smell” leaves something to be desired, but as a showcase for a bravura performance by Moss, it becomes a film that her fans will want to see and may prove to be a marker for her own future career.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.