HomeMoviesHer Smell Review: A Punk Rock Masterpiece

Her Smell Review: A Punk Rock Masterpiece

Photo Credit: Gunpowder & Sky

Alex Ross Perry is a poorly kept secret in the NY-indie film scene, with a handful of respected films that boast passionate pockets of fans. He hasn’t broken out just yet, but he’s close and his new film, Her Smell, certainly seems like the vehicle that will push him over the edge. That’s not to suggest it’s more accessible than his previous works. In fact, his latest is a challenging, upsetting drama that assaults the audience for over an hour before finally calming down and opening up for an emotional connection. But it is just so well-made that Perry’s talent becomes almost undeniable. He’s an exciting voice in American filmmaking, and he has a leading lady who delivers a performance that demands just as much attention and celebration.

Her Smell tells the story of Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss), a punk-rock star whose brilliant talent as a singer/songwriter is matched only by her crippling drug addiction. Her husband (Dan Stevens) has left her, she has no relationship with her daughter, and her studio has an army of younger punk stars on deck ready to replace her in the spotlight. Told in five acts, the film takes what could have been a rather conventional story of addiction and transforms it into an absorbing experience, filled with enough creative flourishes to help it stand out.

The first three acts follow Becky’s intense spiral into addiction, as she fights with her bandmates (Agyness Deyn and Gayle Rankin), disappoints her manager (Eric Stoltz) and becomes convinced her infant daughter will lead to her ultimate demise. These sequences are shocking and increasingly disturbing, thrusting the audience into Becky’s point of view with frenetic cinematography and persistent ambient noise that becomes louder as the scene goes along. Both the audience and the characters are scared for Becky, but everyone is also certainly scared of her as she continues to use more drugs. And these three acts don’t ever let up, starting off tense before eventually reaching a climax that’s overwhelming and gutting.

These scenes work largely because Moss is fully committed to every turn the script takes, going so big with her role from the very first shot that she never runs the risk of becoming too over the top. On a physical level, it seems almost punishing, as she pinballs around the claustrophobic set, throws herself to the ground, and invites the camera up as close as possible. While under the influence, Becky switches personas at the drop of a hat, acting like an angry rock star one minute and a witch possessed by otherworldly spirits the next, and Moss completely sells every change in character and makes the mood swings feel organic. And, perhaps most impressively, Moss still finds (dark) humor in the character, communicating some weirdly hilarious moments through body language. Her creative partnership with Perry (this is their third collaboration) is clearly a fruitful one; she seems to trust Perry’s directorial instincts, and delivers the best performance of her career as a result. In fact, it’s hard to imagine her ever topping this. This is the sort of role that every actor dreams of.

But the emotionally taxing first half leads to a final two acts that are cathartic and emotional, as Perry explores the nature of addiction, recovery, and unconditional love. Moss adds a whole new layer to her character, turning someone that was difficult to empathize with into an open wound of a human being who’s not only easy to root for, but whose previously difficult behavior becomes better informed. Aspects of the first three acts, from Becky’s interest in shamanism to the very act of headlining a rock band, are recontextualized or explored in a different light. And the film completely rewards the audience for its patience, delivering emotional beat after emotional beat—including a musical performance by Moss (captured in a single take) that will certainly induce tears throughout the audience.

And while the film could have gotten by on the combined forces of Perry and Moss, Her Smell boasts quality across the board—onscreen and behind the camera. While no one has anywhere near the same amount of screentime as Moss, every member of this ensemble brings a unique energy to their characters that makes them feel human, and vaguely similar to real-life stars while still feeling somewhat original. The production design is appropriately grimy, with sets build on a soundstage that feel fully lived in and like a real concert hall. The costume design is unique and fun, and the sound design fully envelops the viewer in the characters’ hectic backstage world. Best of all? The music is stunning, boasting a full soundtrack of original gems that really feel like punk hits from the ’90s and ’00s.

At its core, Her Smell is just an exciting movie. While pulling elements from films like The Rose, A Woman Under the Influence, and Leaving Las Vegas, it still feels like something new and original. Its technical execution is incredible, and it boasts a huge heart hidden underneath its harsh shell. And while Moss has already been gifted two iconic roles on television, this feels like the performance she should be remembered for. With a spring release and a tiny distributor, its easy to imagine a world where Her Smell is forgotten by the end of the year, which is a shame given how damn good it is. At this rate, Her Smell will go down in history as one of two things: the film that helps Perry breakthrough into mainstream film culture, or one of the most unjustly ignored movies of the decade. Let’s hope it’s the former, but, either way, it’s nice to know that it’ll be remembered fondly.

Her Smell is now playing in select theaters.

Matt Taylor
Matt Taylor
Matt Taylor is the TV editor at The Pop Break, along with being one of the site's awards show experts. When he's not at the nearest movie theater, he can be found bingeing the latest Netflix series, listening to synth pop, or updating his Oscar predictions. A Rutgers grad, he also works in academic publishing. Follow him on Twitter @MattNotMatthew1.


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