Based on the novel by Alasdair Gray, Poor Things is the latest film from critically acclaimed filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos. The film follows Bella (Emma Stone), who, after attempting suicide, is brought back to life by Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). Upon retrieving her body, Dr. Godwin discovers Bella is pregnant and replaces her brain with her baby’s. While living with her creator, Bella begins to form sentences and is eager to learn about the world around her. As Bella continues to mature, she begins exploring her sexuality. When Bella learns that Dr. Godwin wants her to marry Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), she decides to run away with Duncan Wedderburn (played by an unexpectedly hilarious Mark Ruffalo), a sex-driven and smooth-talking lawyer, with whom Bella has become smitten. However, as Bella travels with Duncan, she becomes influenced and inspired by those around her. She begins to read books and discovers an internal desire to embark on a journey of self-discovery.
There is a lot to admire about Poor Things, from the remarkable filmmaking to the crafts to the committed performances by Stone and Ruffalo. Poor Things is a lot to digest, and while there is a lot about it that works, some aspects rubbed me the wrong way. To put things into perspective, I’ve seen all of Lanthimos’ previous films and have always appreciated how he creates worlds and characters. He’s a very unique filmmaker and one with a strong vision. Lanthimos makes films that push the envelope and make audiences uncomfortable. I admire him for all that, but sometimes, a little restraint can go a long way.
My biggest issue with Poor Things is the excessive nature of the film as a whole. There are at least six scenes that I felt kept going and going. Lanthimos seems to enjoy beating the audience over the head with things repeatedly. Regarding the amount of sexuality and nudity in the film, I have always agreed that sex and nudity can elevate a movie if used effectively. There are certain sex scenes in Poor Things, especially early on, that are essential to shaping Bella and enriching her character, even when some of these scenes are purposely silly and over the top.
The problem for me is a big portion of the third act, where Bella works at a “whore house,” that’s where I feel the sex and nudity goes too far. While Bella’s introduction to being in a whore house needed to be shown, the abundance of the sex scenes in the whore house felt somewhat exploitative, as though they were only there to “shock the viewer,” which, by this point in the film, weren’t even remotely shocking. After watching the movie, my wife and I talked about this story arc, and she stated that many of those scenes felt very disingenuous. She went on to say that they were unnecessary and weakened the film’s overall message. I share the exact sentiment.
There has been a lot of online chatter over the past several years about how certain scenes or films would have been handled differently if they were made from the perspective of another filmmaker. I mentioned this in my initial reaction to Poor Things on Twitter, and everyone came at me with pitchforks, acting like I said that a male filmmaker shouldn’t be making this movie. To be abundantly clear, I am not saying that Lanthimos didn’t do a good job directing this film because he did. I was only suggesting that I was and still am curious to see how the sexual exploration storylines would have been handled if they were written or directed by a female.
There are several sex scenes in Poor Things that were shot from a male POV, and all I was implying is that some of those moments were a bit off-putting, especially considering the feminist messaging that the story was hoping to convey to its audience. Again, this ties into my earlier thoughts on how Lanthimos being able to show some restraint, especially when it comes to the gratuitous nature of some of these scenes, would have, in my humble opinion, helped to elevate and strengthen the film’s message.
Going back to the positives, when watching Poor Things, it does feel like you are watching a work of art. The first act, being in black and white, played very much into the whole Frankenstein vibe before the movie moved into the second act, where it became more colorful and whimsical. The cinematography, production design, visual effects, costume design, and hair and makeup are superb and will surely be part of the awards conversation. The whole film is a visual feast for the eyes.
In terms of performances, Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo are equally terrific. They embrace the weirdness of the material and just run with it. Emma Stone is one of those actresses whom I’ve always admired. She is one of the most consistently brilliant actresses working today. She can go from a teenage comedy like Easy A to a deeply thought-provoking indie like Birdman to the bizarre and ballsy The Favourite. After seeing her work in Poor Things, I am convinced that Emma Stone is an actress who can take on any role and will nail it.
While the conversation has already started about Stone being nominated, which I think is a real possibility, I’m not entirely sure that a win is guaranteed. Stone has been part of the Lanthimos sandbox before, and I think some voters may hold that against her when picking the winner. It’s honestly too early to say, but that is what my gut is saying right now.
On the other hand, after sleeping on the film for a few days, I can see Mark Ruffalo potentially picking up a nomination for his role in the movie. I have never seen Ruffalo like this before, and I think that is something that audiences and voters will be drawn to. I love seeing a serious actor take on a role that makes them step outside their comfort zone. Ruffalo looks like he is having the time of his life playing Duncan Wedderburn, and he nails Tony McNamara’s dialogue. He also exhibits fantastic facial expressions that help push the performance to another level.
Poor Things does overstay its welcome and is, at times, tonally uneven. I felt the first act could have been cut in half, and the same could be said about the third. The second act was great, and I wish Bella’s growth and maturity would have been explored more in the third act. There is this great moment where Bella wants to help those struggling in the world, so she gathers Duncan’s money and gives it to people who work on the cruise ship, hoping they will help carry out her vision of helping those in need. I would have loved to see this explored more once Bella steps off the cruise ship, but that never happened.
Overall, Poor Things offers a unique cinematic experience that looks and feels like a work of art. Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo delivered two of their best performances in this latest outing from Yorgos Lanthimos. While Poor Things will play well with Cinefiles, I see it being hit or miss for regular moviegoers. Poor Things is a film that will surely gain much traction as we enter into award season. It will be a major awards player, especially in the crafts categories, and if nothing else, will get audiences talking.