Movie Review: Poor Things

One-liner: Niche, thought-provoking and unsettling, this edgy, original and surreal visual masterpiece is enhanced by absurd dark comedy and fierce performances.

Poor Things is a gothic sci-fi horror comedy-drama from Yorgos Lanthimos, one of the most wholly original and unconventional films you may ever see. While the visually-enticing moving artwork picks up a Frankenstein-monster thread, inspired by black-and-white horror movies from yesteryear, almost every other aspect is refreshingly different. The title speaks to the old adage “poor thing”, which helps establish the time period, and the plural gives one a subtle hint as to the central concept.

Taking place at a scientist’s home, it becomes clear that one of his projects is now near and dear enough to be called daughter. Having had her body retrieved after jumping off a bridge to her death, a young woman is given a second chance after being reanimated under extraordinary conditions. Now tasked with reintegrating the young woman who has to learn everything from scratch, the task of fatherhood becomes increasingly difficult as the woman grows up with a primarily sensory connection to the world, with morality trailing far behind.

Becoming acclimatized to all manner of appetites, it’s not long before an unscrupulous lawyer decides to whisk Bella away from her protective bubble into the big bad world. Taking a rather alien perspective in an adult body with childlike fascination, there’s an edge to this concept as Bella discovers herself and the world around her. Free from suspicion and relying on experiential learning predominantly, she develops a hedonistic appetite for pleasure without prejudice landing her in all kinds of strange and twisted situations.

There’s an experimental edge to Poor Things as Lanthimos switches from black and white to colour with fish eye lens shots interspersed to create a rather alienating effect. The gothic backdrop, artful and surreal treatment make it the sort of thing you’d expect to find in a Smashing Pumpkins music video. Not tonally dissimilar to their video for ‘Stand Inside Your Love’, which was influenced by a similar film style and based on Oscar Wilde’s one act play Salome, the soundtrack also has its own quirks. Reminiscent of There Will Be Blood in terms of its originality, Poor Things is the kind of film that’s as beautiful as it is ugly, making it difficult to look away from.

Having been nominated in 11 Oscar categories, it’s not surprising to find that Lanthimos’s visual aesthetic is transportive in the way that he builds another world for this story to take place in. Primarily influenced by the Victorian era, there’s a surreal edge to the visuals as hybridisation becomes a regular occurrence through the scientist’s attempts to play God across the spectrum. The old world feel harnesses some of this fairy dust, tapping into the form and etiquette of the age, only to make a stark contrast with the libertarian nature of the happenings.

poor things movie

“Well… I bite my hand at you, sir.”

Operating without judgment, much like its lead in Emma Stone, there’s an uncomfortable and unhinged freedom when it comes to sexuality in Bella’s world. The concept adds another prickly layer to this story as she unwittingly gets swept into the gutter as an innocent, treated like someone much more mature and in control of her person. Borderline exploitative, the unsettling see-sawing continues throughout the film as our fascination for Bella and her predicament find us at odds with her reckless behavior and seemingly self-destructive tendencies.

While the sound and visuals paint a vivid world for the action to take place in, the fierce performances ground the magical characters with enough grit and grime to make this place feel lived in and real. Emma Stone is an absolute force, a constant curiosity from her jerky ragdoll movements to her unaffected disposition as the bright-eyed Bella Baxter. A fearless performance, immersing herself in the role and finding a unique balance between innocence and independence, there’s a wonderful tension to this fine lead performance.

Mark Ruffalo didn’t think that he was right for the role of Duncan Wedderburn, joking that Oscar Isaac would be a more suitable fit on the set next door, but delivers a remarkable supporting performance opposite Emma Stone. Known for playing warm good guy characters, the role reversal is welcome, offering a similar tension to echo that of Emma Stone’s turn. Sleazy and lecherous, this type-breaking exercise has its own comedic undertones based on the actor’s glowing history.

Now regarded as a warning shot simply based on his casting in a film, Willem Dafoe adds his clout to the role of Godwin Baxter. Having to sit through hours of makeup every day to get into and out of character, there’s an Elephant Man meets Frankenstein type styling at play, yet Dafoe’s able to remain compelling in spite of all the facial prosthetics.

As a dark sardonic comedy, it’s the fish-out-of-water situations for Bella and her unexpected responses that go a long way to unearthing the delight, disgust and hilarity of this sharp-witted foray into a ‘debauchutant’. Relentlessly entertaining and engaging, taking place against a canvas of dreams and nightmares, Poor Things goes to some dark places. As visceral and eye-popping as it is, there’s a surprisingly subtle depth to the film as themes around age, humanity, the treatment of women and children as well as the follies of trying to play God rise to the surface. Grappling with these themes, Poor Things doesn’t get bogged down in its quest for meaning but rather attempts to offer a non-judgmental take on a character who just doesn’t know any better. The matter-of-fact tone offers a unique vantage point, which helps viewers live through Bella’s experience with a sense of empathetic revile.

While things slow down a bit towards the end, chiming in at almost two and a half hours, this rambunctious, unforgettable and unsettling film experience is not for the faint-hearted. Having many sex scenes, some gleefully perverse, Poor Things more than earns its age rating. This film is a curious character study, cleverly contrasting the expectations of high society against the dark, twisted desires of man’s more primal urges.

Poor Things is audacious and does flirt with the edge when it comes to its depiction of a would-be minor but as the director re-emphasizes, this is a surreal vision that shouldn’t be taken literally. Still, being entrenched in this gothic fortune wheel, it’s still difficult to extract yourself from the film when some of the grotesque and voyeuristic scenes inevitably draw distaste and leave their mark. Poor Things remains compelling as it taunts and chastises simultaneously. Absurdly funny, celebrating old Hollywood horror and functioning like an R-rated Tim Burton movie embroidered with Taika Waititi whimsy, it’s definitely not everyone’s cup of tea… poor things.

The bottom line: Edgy