Elisabeth Moss’ incandescent performance, probably unlike anything you’ve ever seen her do before, is the raw, beating, bloody heart of Her Smell, the sixth feature film from writer/director Alex Ross Perry. In her third collaboration with Perry, Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale) plays Becky Something, leader of the influential all-female punk rock trio Something She. Once an arena-filler, Something She is playing smaller venues and clearly on the decline, with Becky herself a drug-addled, slow-motion catastrophe whose personal downward spiral is pulling everyone within her circle into the abyss with her.
Bass player Marielle (Agyness Deyn) is fighting to keep the band together while strapped with a cocaine habit of her own; drummer Ali (Gayle Rankin) is the only seemingly straight one but the victim of some of Becky’s most vicious barbs; and Becky’s long-single mother Ania (Virginia Madsen) is torn between compassion and disgust for her once-promising daughter. As for the men in Becky’s life, ex-husband Danny (Dan Stevens) is trying to keep her focused on their toddler daughter, while the head of her record label, Howard (Eric Stoltz) is watching his business crumble alongside his once biggest star.
It’s in many ways a somewhat familiar tale of an artist whose musical talent is matched only by their uncanny ability to self-destruct in spectacular fashion, which Becky is absolutely adept at doing. The first half of Her Smell, which follows three distinct stages of her monumental fall (including essentially taking over an up-and-coming young trio of female punks after her band quits, then leaving them standing at the altar on the night of their big debut together), details Becky’s plunge into hell in bonkers, almost surreal fashion, with Moss leaving everything on the field as she turns into a tornado of cruelty, malice, self-pity, arrogance and cockiness as she pulls the world down around her. It’s almost too much and it leaves the viewer spent with fully half of the movie’s hefty 135 minutes to go.
But then the movie pivots, jumping into the future and catching up with Becky, now nearly a year sober, as she begins to try and put the pieces back together. As fast, insane, and pummeling as the first half of Her Smell is, the second half is a different film entirely: reflective, compassionate, and humane, with fleeting echoes of past events strategically placed to remind us how fragile this all is. This portion of the film also pays well-deserved homage to the power of women themselves, from the youngest child to the oldest parent, and how capable they are of opening up their hearts and supporting each other even in the darkest or most bitter of times.
Does it work? Not completely. Luckily the second half of the film has humanity to spare, because nothing we see of Becky in the first section makes us believe she earns any of the good will she later receives. She is truly a monster when we first meet her, and Perry’s script does not adequately make the case for why everyone has stayed in her orbit and tried to help her for so long, except either for financial gain or simply as gluttons for punishment.
It’s this off-balance structure that keeps Her Smell from being a truly great piece of work, or even a particularly insightful one. Something She seems to be an act in the riot grrrl mode, with Becky herself almost a doppelganger for the flaming trainwreck that was Courtney Love during that time, but the movie says little about the movie itself or the era, except to use it as backdrop. And while we are told that Becky’s father abandoned his family early on, her mother seems to have done everything she could to support her while the other men in her life — Danny and Howard — also appear to be almost unnaturally patient and giving as well. We never really find out why Becky has turned into the demon we meet, which makes it even harder to understand her eventual redemption.
Despite those deep-seated flaws, Her Smell still gets by on the strength of Moss’ performance (and that of the rest of the cast as well), plus the propulsive energy that Perry brings to the first half and at least the attempt at true emotional weight in the second. As for the appalling title, well, the final shot of the film gives it a different meaning, and one that mothers everywhere may recognize. Strangely enough, it’s a moving grace note in an interesting film that could have used a few more.
Her Smell opens today (Friday, April 12) in NYC and expands nationwide next week.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye