Cinematic Releases: Her Smell (2018) - Reviewed

When we last saw writer-director Alex Ross Perry, that acerbic and wry mumblecore filmmaker with an uncanny ability to mire viewers in the disquieting psychological vortex of self-destructive behavior, he took a breather from the singular character study for the still acidic but less renowned ensemble bad-relationship drama Golden Exits.  The film reunited Perry with his Listen Up Philip lead Jason Schwartzman and bore the usual unpleasantries fans have come to expect from Perry’s films.  

However, after scoring two home runs with Listen Up Philip and Queen of Earth, many were dismissive of the ensemble Golden Exits and regarded it as a minor misfire for Perry.  Fear not, however, as the corrosive writer-director is back in full swing with his seventh and most technically accomplished feature film yet: the dark and tense story of a fading punk rock star on the fateful night of her journey to rock bottom Her Smell.

In the third collaboration with Elisabeth Moss after her brief appearance in Listen Up Philip before stealing the show with Perry’s masterful Queen of Earth, Her Smell follows musician and vocalist Becky Something (Moss) as she leads her band Something She and everyone connected to her down a turbulent and volatile path. 

Broken apart into five disparate segments cross-cutting between the band’s past successes leading up to their present downturn, the film largely remains backstage capturing the fierce and unhinged Becky Something on her intoxicated, selfish self-destructive tirades as she proceeds to alienate her bandmates, producers, managers and even friends and/or family.  No one, not even her mother Ania (Virginia Madsen), ex-husband Danny (Dan Stevens) or her manager Howard Goodman (Eric Stoltz) seem able to get through to her as she continues to travel down a warpath towards monstrosity.

Much like Queen of Earth, Perry is less interested in getting to the bottom of the nastiness than he is in dropping you in the middle of the madness before making you feel the surrounding characters’ pain.  Think of the behind-the-scenes drama of Mark Rydell’s The Rose with the ugly in-fighting amplified past the point of most moviegoers’ level of tolerance.  From the moment Moss’ edgy rocker appears onscreen, we can’t think of any reason to like her and she only grows worse as the picture bores on. 

And yet like a motor vehicle accident we can’t look away from, Moss is captivating as Becky, easily eclipsing her own towering portrait of madness in Queen of Earth.  Darting around the film’s 2.35:1 widescreen frame (a first for Perry who ordinarily shoots in 1.85:1), Moss comes across as a whirlwind force of nature oblivious to the damage being left in her wake. 

As with his prior works, Perry reunites with his usual collaborators including cinematographer Sean Price Williams whose trademark grainy images and uncomfortably tight close-ups coupled with composer Keegan DeWitt’s tense and nerve-wracking electronic score work to create a truly disquieting environment for the film’s poor supporting characters to be in.  At times the music, co-written by musician Alicia Bognanno, plays like ambient sound design with key white noise effects reverberating like a furnace or cooker pot ready to blow from overheating. 

Though the film frequently jumps back and forth between past and present, editor Robert Greene who has worked on pretty much all of Perry’s films manages to keep the viewer’s headspace grounded in the backstage room despite the chronological leaps the picture makes.  It’s an impressive feat in how you’re able to catch glimpses of the band’s formulation and successes without ever feeling like we’ve escaped the Hell of the band’s frontwoman’s making.

Her Smell is unquestionably the writer-director’s most technically accomplished and star-studded work yet and his first foray into panoramic widescreen photography is a welcome evolutionary step for him.  It also undoubtedly contains a white-hot performance from it’s leading lady who makes Bette Midler’s drugged up rocker in The Rose look civilized and sober by comparison. 

If I had to voice any complaints, admittedly the film’s denouement which tends towards the clich├ęs of your typical VH1 – Behind the Music documentaries seems at odds with the picture preceding it.  Watching it I couldn’t help but wonder if it might have been more effective to repeat the paths taken by Listen Up Philip or Queen of Earth which simply abruptly ended at the central protagonist’s logical climax. 

That said, Her Smell will nevertheless leave you feeling rattled by the volatility of the film’s central punk rocker in the throes of her own downward spiral.  Whether we fully understand what’s driving Becky’s mean streak and destructive behavior, what we know for sure is what it must feel like to be in the same room with her.

- Andrew Kotwicki