“Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon” opens where any good stylishly ironic demon-out-of-water fairy-tale thriller should: in an insane asylum. That’s where Mona Lisa (Jeon Jong-seo), a catatonic waif, is seated on her knees in a straitjacket. We see right off how miserable she is; it’s there in her aura — and besides, who in her situation wouldn’t be? Then a gabby, sneering attendant walks into the room to trim the girl’s nails and pelt her with insults. The way the scene is shot, we feel the gathering of Mona Lisa’s repressed energy; we’re all but expecting an act of violence. What we don’t expect is that Mona Lisa, with a blast of what looks to be telekinetic rage (she has already cut to the place Carrie White was at in full prom mode), uses it to guide the attendant’s movements, lifting her arm in tandem with her own and forcing her to stab herself in the thigh, several times, with the nail clippers.
That’s a pretty good trick, and it allows Mona Lisa, under the threat of doing even more damage, to escape the asylum and wander into the night, which is under the watchful gaze of a large full moon. Set in some of the scuzziest environs of New Orleans (and also in the Bourbon Street district, which has its own vibrant strip-club sleaziness), “Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon” is a lark, a contradiction — a lurid, violent, caught-in-the-gutter movie that’s also a nimble and knowing tall tale for adults. Out on her own, Mona Lisa deals with anyone who threatens her or gives her too much lip — and there are plenty of these harassers — the same way she did the attendant: by taking over their movements with telekinetic bravura and causing them to do themselves damage. She also meets a friendly soul or two, and of course she changes their lives.
This, I’ll confess, is not the kind of movie I tend to like very much. Our Hollywood cinema is already drenched in fantasy. Do we really need an indie fable, dunked in the squalor of the streets, about a mostly silent victim-rebel-avenger who possesses a power that would make her right at home with the X-Men? There’s only one thing that can bring a movie like this one to life, investing it with something like human emotion and making it more than a gimmick. That’s when its writer-director knows what she’s doing so exquisitely that she catches us up in the sincerity and surprise of her filmmaking élan.
That’s what Ana Lily Amirpour does in “Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon.” As a director, she has been on my radar, but has never really lit it up. This, however, is the kind of grounded fantasy, told in images of darkly burnished color and light (as shot by Pawel Pogorzelski, the film looks like “Taxi Driver on the Bayou”), that inspires you to go: This filmmaker has it. She’s got it. The quality that makes you major. The ability not to just to tell a story but to hold an audience in the palm of her hand.
Jeon Jong-seo, acting with the ferocious stillness of a feral kid, plays Mona Lisa as a kind of spiritual alien. As it turns out, she has been in that asylum for 12 years, ever since she was 10 (she’s a Korean immigrant who, it’s suggested, was abandoned in the U.S.). Early on, she stops at a convenience store, where she tries to buy some Cheez Puffos — the kind of junk-food joke that the movie presents with a sliver of punk innocence, as if this were a remake of “Repo Man.” Outside the store, the scene is repulsive (two drunk girls are sitting there, and one of them keeps throwing up), but the ugliness is Amirpour’s way of rooting her tale in something real.
Mona Lisa meets Fuzz, a white hip-hop drug dealer with Lou-Reed-in-1971 bangs and a car done up like a disco. He’s played by Ed Skrein, and though we’ve seen this kind of character before, Skrein works diabolical wonders with it. He goes every bit as far into putting on a “street” personality as Riley Keough did in “Zola” (something that takes an added dollop of resonance from Skrein’s dimpled resemblance to Vanilla Ice), but he makes his every “f’real” delectable. Fuzz is a softie with a sociopath edge. He gives Mona Lisa a kiss, and also the T-shirt off his back, a dark-blue tie-dye number with a solar eclipse on the front. It certainly beats her straitjacket.
Junk food, of every variety, is a major theme of “Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon.” Everyone is constantly scarfing it, and it’s at a cruddy burger-and-fries joint where Mona Lisa meets Bonnie Belle (Kate Hudson), a stripper who carries her own vibe of alienated toughness. Hudson, speaking not in a New Orleans drawl but with a New York accent that suggests just how far from home she is, inhabits this role with a no-fuss authenticity; she has a workaday weariness, but also a defiant hint of the sparkle it has buried. Bonnie gives some shelter to Mona Lisa, who repays her by teaming up with her to make money: taking it from the strip-club frat dudes who don’t tip enough for their lap dances, and then going into outright robbery by holding up people at ATMs.
Does the fact that this is accomplished with telekinesis somehow justify it? Not necessarily. (A cop, played by Craig Robinson, is doggedly on their tail.) But it makes Mona Lisa part of a magnetic tradition of movie outlaws who simply do what they do, and we ride along with it because that’s part of the subversive logic of cinema. Bonnie has an 11-year-old son, Charlie (Evan Whitten), who’s a metal-head moppet, scornful of his mother. He winds up running off with Mona Lisa, which is what he needs to do to come around to see the value of the love he’s been taking for granted.
“Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon” is full of indie ‘tude, but it’s stylishly well-executed in a way that suggests that Ana Lily Amirpour, if she chooses, could have a major Hollywood career. Watching the “X-Men” films (with the sole exception of “Logan”), I’ve always felt that the notion that these freaks with superpowers are “alienated outsiders” exists in theory only. But in Jeon Jong-seo’s performance as Mona Lisa, you see the power and the alienation. And the two qualities work together in a cool and empathetic way. At the end, she’s on an airplane, headed to another troubled city that’s just as full of troublemakers, as well as people who could use her help. Will there be a sequel? I seriously doubt it. But the cheek of the movie is that it nudges you to want one.
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