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Review: Elisabeth Moss galvanizes in the brilliant punk psychodrama ‘Her Smell’

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Elisabeth Moss in the movie “Her Smell.”
(Donald Stahl)
Film Critic

You may not see a better movie with a worse title this year than “Her Smell.”

Scratch that, actually; the title’s perfect. It’s the name of the rock club where we meet the pop supernova that is Becky Something (a mesmerizing Elisabeth Moss), who fronts an all-female punk band called Something She. But it also captures something of the acrid effect she has on anyone who crosses her path. Becky is more than just another over-indulged, over-liquored celebrity narcissist; she’s a bad mood, a toxic atmosphere, a cloud of rage, self-pity and unbridled malice that comes rolling off the screen in thick, annihilating waves. In a word, she reeks.

That’s not an orthodox recommendation, to be sure, and this movie — a blistering, exhilarating eruption of raw talent and nerve from writer-director Alex Ross Perry — may well send you screaming from the theater, ready to embark on a violent bender of your own. For the better part of two hours, we watch as Becky undergoes the mother of all backstage meltdowns, finally self-destructing with such spectacular, lacerating fury that she rips a hole in the picture and leaves you wondering if you can trust the glimmer of redemption that remains.

Turns out you can. Perry, who previously cast Moss in his dramas “Listen Up Philip” and “Queen of Earth,” can be a pitiless anatomist of the human psyche, but also a disarmingly sincere one. A funny thing happens when he throws a frame around Becky, who, like any number of real-life and fictional musicians who have crashed and burned, is never not performing. She’s a virtuoso construct, a brash and incorrigible persona masking a bundle of insecurities. She is also a reminder that someone we might not care to spend five minutes with in real life can turn out to be riveting, even rewarding cinematic company.

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And the movie itself, structured in five long acts that play out in unflinching real time, strains and stretches to make itself worthy of her, lurching for greatness and getting there with time to burn. Perry has invoked Shakespeare and Guns N’ Roses as inspirations, while Becky often brings to mind Courtney Love, with her blond locks and a grin that looks as though it could devour the world. “I always flirt with death” are the first lyrics we hear her sing, after which she chucks the guitar and heads backstage, the camera plunging after her as though into the abyss.

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Agyness Deyn, left, and Gayle Rankin in the film “Her Smell.”
(Donald Stahl / Gunpowder & Sky)

Something She, a ’90s riot grrrl sensation, has seen happier days. (Perry shows us some of them in brief home-video flashbacks sprinkled between acts.) The sold-out arenas are gone, and the band now plays smaller venues that are nonetheless still jammed with loyal fans. We often hear the roar of the crowd reverberating through the club walls, joining with the low, unnerving rumble and eerie electronic flourishes of Keegan DeWitt’s score. It sounds like background noise, or it could be the dark voices in Becky’s head as she flails from one miserable encounter to the next, verbally incinerating everyone in her midst.

Her bandmates and best friends, Marielle (Agyness Deyn) and Ali (Gayle Rankin), are used to being in the line of fire. So is the band’s long-suffering manager, a professional mollifier amusingly named Howard Goodman (Eric Stoltz), and Becky’s ex, Danny (Dan Stevens), who’s made the mistake of bringing his new girlfriend backstage. It was an even bigger mistake to bring Becky and Danny’s adorable toddler (Clive Piotrowicz), and you fear for the child whenever Mama picks her up, cackling and sticking out her tongue in a freaky but cursory display of affection. Becky’s affection might be scarier than her rage.

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This venue, with its harrowing vibes and sulfurous, coked-up atmosphere, is no place for a child. As shot by cinematographer Sean Price Williams in dim neon lights and corridor-snaking camera movements that bring a Gaspar Noé hellscape to mind, it’s not really a place for smart, responsible grownups, either. Becky has brought in a religious shaman (Eka Darville) to detect and clear away other people’s bad auras, but it’s she who needs an exorcism — one that is slowly set in motion when those closest to her finally decide they’ve had enough.

The first three acts of “Her Smell” are like the proverbial slow-motion train wreck. The action shifts to a recording studio, where Becky’s latest histrionics are holding the group’s long-delayed album hostage. Her bandmates abandon her and are replaced in short order by a trio of young punk sprites (played by Cara Delevingne, Ashley Benson and Dylan Gelula), who’ve showed up to record an album of their own. Becky woos them into her destructive orbit, but her attempt to use them to stage her own comeback is doomed to backfire.

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Dan Stevens and Clive Piotrowicz in the movie “Her Smell.”
(Donald Stahl / Gunpowder & Sky)

Cue Act 3, which switches to another ill-fated concert, where Becky undergoes a cataclysmic breakdown, her face a pained blur of glitter and eye shadow, tears and blood. Moss is galvanizing, scary and very, very funny; she makes Lady Gaga in “A Star Is Born” look like even more of a Cinderella saint among pop divas, and for sheer hell-raising intensity, she eclipses Natalie Portman in “Vox Lux.” She has never been afraid to go deep and dark; from “Mad Men” to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” she’s been one of the best actors in television for a while. Her film work, a juicy recent role in Jordan Peele’s “Us” notwithstanding, hasn’t earned her as much attention, a situation that “Her Smell” deserves to remedy.

What’s remarkable about this star turn — apart from Moss’ more-than-convincing embodiment of Becky’s talent in three musical performances, each one crucial — is that it’s beautifully modulated even at its most unhinged. Becky grins and cackles like a demon one minute, then drops scarily silent the next. Her arias of verbal abuse are startlingly lucid and hyper-eloquent, peppered with all manner of baroque alliteration and goofy wordplay. (It would kill the joke to explain, but “Inward, ho!” is still making me laugh several days later.) Perry has his show-offy impulses as a writer, but Moss is so good she sells them as the character’s own.

Becky may suck all the oxygen out of a room, but Moss’ demented energy keeps generating new beats for her excellent costars to resonate against. Deyn and Stoltz are especially good as two of Becky’s favored targets, and Virginia Madsen hovers memorably on the sidelines as her kindly mother, forever apologizing for having brought this monster into the world. The skill and cohesion of the entire ensemble dovetails movingly with the movie’s slow-building point, which is that art — and life — are best experienced in loving collaboration. That might sound like a soft conclusion after so much virtuosic sound and fury, but “Her Smell” earns its catharsis as well as its rancor.

Late into the movie, the smoke suddenly clears, leaving Becky hushed and humbled at last, and building to a moment of reckoning — with a crucial assist from Bryan Adams — that feels both heartbreaking and astonishingly pure. It moves from there into a final chapter that is, in its way, no less jittery and harrowing than what came before, but this time with a precious sense of newfound hope in its pocket. We see Becky Something, with fresh clarity, for the good friend she once was, the loving mother she might become and the great artist she has always been. You can quibble with this movie’s title, but it gives redemption stories a good name.

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‘Her Smell’

Rating: R, for language throughout and some drug use

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

Playing: Starts April 19, ArcLight Cinemas, Hollywood

justin.chang@latimes.com | Twitter: @JustinCChang


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