Atsushi Nishijima/Searchlight Pictures
Is the person that we become dictated by nature or nurture? Is it possible to preserve one’s hope and sincerity in a world that is relentlessly filled with cruelty and despair? If it feels so good, why is everyone not just fucking all of the time? These are the big existential questions at the forefront of the mind of Yorgos Lanthimos’ new film, “Poor Things.”
It is an exquisitely crafted, decadent, and jaw-dropping work of deeply cinematic beauty that is also more than happy to feature multiple jokes about masturbation, farts, and the salty taste of Mark Ruffalo’s dick. Lanthimos has long had a gift for blending the profane and the profound (as seen in excellent earlier works like “The Lobster” or “The Favourite”), but it has never felt quite as potently pointed as it does here. With “Poor Things,” Lanthimos and co. deliver a masterpiece that plays like an astonishing artistic culmination of all of his previous work.
Adapted from the Alasdair Gray novel of the same name, “Poor Things” opens as a riff on Mary Shelley’s timeless tale “Frankenstein” (with Lanthimos and cinematographer Robbie Ryan delivering their own effervescently gorgeous take on some fittingly James Whale-esque iconography) but much like its protagonist, the film is a constantly evolving creature. “Poor Things” engages deeply with Shelley’s themes of identity, self, and the relationship between creation and creator, following these threads through to their ends. The result is an existential masterwork that is irreverently raucous, earnestly sincere, side-splittingly hysterical, and deeply moving, often simultaneously.
TOP 5 THINGS ABOUT “Poor Things”
5. The Score
“Poor Things” is a somewhat unexpectedly massive undertaking of a film. While in reality, its story only spans a relatively short span of time, the arc upon which Emma Stone’s protagonist Bella goes upon is gargantuan, taking her from one end of the spectrum of human evolution to the next within that time frame. Fittingly, the musical score as provided by Jerskin Fendrix chronicles and reflects this evolution sonically throughout the film in stunning fashion.
Utilizing unconventional instruments, off-kilter rhythms, and strikingly mono-filtered sweeping orchestral strings alongside harsh bursts of woodwind and brass, Fendrix’s score sounds in theory every bit as dysfunctional and odd as Lanthimos’ film does. But in execution, every element of the score (and the film as a whole to a larger extent) come together in genuinely awe-inspiring synchrony. The result is an unshakeable work of art in its own right that is precisely tapped into the emotions and themes of Lanthimos’ cinematic storytelling that the results are overwhelmingly affecting.
4. Ruffalo is a Revelation
Mark Ruffalo is a phenomenal actor. From the earliest days of his career, when he was appearing as the go-to choice if a 2000s rom-com was looking for a slightly less conventional leading man, Ruffalo has always had a gift for being imminently watchable and committed to his performance. Here, Ruffalo takes this to insane new heights.
As a pompous, overbearing lover, Ruffalo chews all of the scenery in a performance that is equal parts Marlon Brando in “Streetcar Named Desire” and Ryan Gosling in “Barbie.” It is relentlessly entertaining to watch, and Ruffalo gives all of himself to the part. Everything from the smallest of facial ticks to the whole of his physicality is carefully crafted to delirious degrees.
I personally consider Ruffalo’s performance in David Fincher’s “Zodiac” to be a highlight of his career, and his work here is just as incendiarily brilliant, in completely different ways.
3. The Production Design
One of the most unexpected and utterly delightful elements of “Poor Things” is the sheer size, scope, and breadth of its production. What begins in an exquisitely crafted but largely self-contained mansion set in the earlier scenes expands to increasingly gargantuan scales throughout the film as Stone’s Bella furthers her journey of discovery, both internally and externally. The result is a surprisingly monumental film with these absolutely exquisite sets that look like works of art in their own right but that also function so serendipitously within the story and fabric of the film.
From the use of miniatures and rear-projection screens to fully-realized standing sets, “Poor Things” production designers Shona Heath and James Price embraced authentic artificiality like an old Hollywood production in the truest of ways, blending this classical sensibility with the film’s more fantastical, science-fiction-driven aesthetic and black-comedy tone to some truly revolutionary results. “Poor Things” looks and sounds like nothing else you will have seen in theaters this year, and it is an absolute treasure to behold on every level.
2. Yorgos Lanthimos’ Direction
Yorgos Lanthimos has one of the most widely and easily recognizable visual vernaculars in all of modern filmmaking. From his love of wide-angle lenses to his implementation of iris shots to his frequent use of long zoom lenses, Lanthimos makes films that are distinctly outside the comfort zone of most modern audiences, even just in a visual sense. In conjunction with cinematographer Robbie Ryan, Lanthimos’ visual choices added up to a deliberately exaggerated, often garish yet even more often portrait-esque quality that earned them numerous Academy Award nominations for “The Favourite.”
But here, in “Poor Things” as a story and Bella as a primary character, Lanthimos has found an even more pointed motivation for his established visual language. In presenting the entire world so deliberately in these ever-expansive wide-angle shots, so often abstaining from anything even resembling an establishing shot and instead keeping the audience ruthlessly tethered to the characters, Lanthimos and Ryan cinematically invest us in Bella’s perspective on the world at all times.
Beyond all of this, it’s just a gob-smackingly beautiful film to look at. From the black-and-white film stock of the first act to the two-strip-Technicolor emulation of its color photography, with its dreamlike, lush, rich colors, “Poor Things” is a monolithic visual accomplishment and Lanthimos’ most directly motivated visual work to-date.
1. Emma Stone is Transcendent
Simply put, not enough can be said about Emma Stone’s performance in “Poor Things.” The entire cast here is fantastic, but Stone has the herculean task of selling the entirety of Bella’s gargantuan arc across the span of the film, and she makes every single frame absolutely sing with vulnerability and emotional resonance.
What begins as a very childlike and inherently goofier performance morphs over the course of the runtime to encompass the character’s new experiences, and the audience watches Stone’s performance metamorphose with stunning clarity and articulateness. On top of all of this, she is unbelievably funny throughout the whole thing, reaffirming that she is not only one of the most talented dramatic performers of her generation but also one of the most talented comedic performers as well. Stone disappears within the skin of this character.
Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Poor Things” is an absolutely wonderful cinematic delight in every meaning of the word. Both an immensely satisfying culmination of Lanthimos’ body of work up to this point and a fantastically entertaining and thought-provoking work in its own right, “Poor Things” absolutely rules. A film ultimately about liberation, physically, philosophically, and sexually, audiences should rush to see “Poor Things” on the biggest screen they possibly can.