'Her Smell' film review: Moss rocks as fading star on tail end of fame
At times grueling and often hard to watch, the drama “Her Smell” (now playing in select cities and available on-demand May 10) is a showcase for Elisabeth Moss, as she channels the worst parts of every "E! True Hollywood Story" ever.
In short: Self-destructive rocker Becky Something (Moss), the lead singer of a once popular punk band, struggles with an all-consuming alcoholism and crippling insecurity, as she tries to reclaim success. Also stars Dan Stevens, Cara Delevingne with Eric Stoltz and Amber Heard.
Moss's frenetic, resentment and vulnerable performance is the key to this sometimes hard-to-watch portrait of an artist losing her grip on what little she has left, resentful of everyone around her and threatened by the new bands who idolize her. Becky is a powerful force of nature who commands any room she walks into - she is both emotional wrecking ball as well as a profoundly insecure artist. Moss exudes simultaneous righteous contempt and deeply rooted fragility, sometimes vacillating between the two extremes in the same moment.
Everyone - from the characters putting with Becky's crap to the audience watching this film - is a prisoner of sorts, forced to have front seats to witness Becky's demise. She is a perfectly exhausting emotional vampire, draining the life and will power of everyone around her. The paranoia-driven abuse she unloads on those closest to her is disturbing. Her volatility means Becky can and do anything, at any moment. This infuses the film with an unrelenting tension, making this character study of a fading star something closer to a dramatic thriller driven by a wholly unpredictable and troubled protagonist than anything else.
Moss's raw performance is the core of "Smell" - and writer-director Alex Ross Perry's inspired narrative framework keeps the film gripping. The story is told in five vignettes, each prefaced with home movie footage from the past - offering a peek at the band's glory days, juxtaposed against chapters following Becky's downward spiral over the span of years. Each vignette is a focused snapshot in the living nightmare of life with Becky -- beginning immediately following a club show, with Becky loaded and completely unstable. This tells a complete story across time, using only small glimpses into five days of Becky's life after her band's best days are behind them. In turn, this allow Moss's performance to live specifically in five moments that track her chaotic arc.
The sustained cruelty Becky inflicts upon the ever-dwindling group of supporters effectively captures her monstrous behavior -- but watching her selfish antics becomes punishing for the audience as well. The point is well made that Becky is a toxic disaster, however, watching her meltdown (with little to no break) for almost an hour and a half feels almost as abusive as Becky herself. While the first three vignettes are not boring - because Becky finds creative new ways to inflict harm on those around her - watching the unceasing calamity that is Becky, at times, does feel like watching one, long action sequence. If nothing else, nip-tucking the film would be a mercy - but it wouldn’t necessarily improve the film.
Final verdict: "Her Smell" is a compelling portrait of an artist's complete and utter frenetic implosion, anchored wholly in Moss's intoxicating performance.
“Her Smell” is now playing in select cities and available on-demand May 10. This drama has a runtime of 135 minutes and is rated R for language throughout and some drug use.