Her_Smell-elisabethmoss.jpg
Don Stahl
I’ll start by stating the obvious: Elisabeth Moss is a really, really good actor. Her Smell might be the greatest testament to her talent yet; it’s her third movie with writer/director Alex Ross Perry, and Moss’ performance as riot-grrrl-era rock star Becky Something is provocative, immersive, and galvanizing. It’s both grueling and inspiring to sit through.

Her Smell is a pretty tough sit, overall. Perry’s script is split into five lengthy scenes, each around 25 minutes, and they viscerally chart—through tight, close-in shots—the drug-addled descent of the psychologically damaged Becky by way of backstage interactions and one particularly disastrous studio session. We see Becky through the eyes of others, including the father of her child (Dan Stevens), the head of her record label (Eric Stoltz, oozing skeezy stepdad vibes), her mother (Virginia Madsen), and a few fellow female musicians (Amber Heard and Cara Delevingne, among others). They all have deep love for Becky, even when she’s being a nasty piece of work—she’s vicious and gifted and cuttingly intelligent, both demanding of the attention she gets and scornful of it. Many have compared the character to Courtney Love, but this strikes me as convenient shorthand; there aren't any real biographical correlations between the two beyond Becky’s rank unpleasantness and the facts that she has a child and plays punk-informed music.

The soul of the movie lies in the performances of Becky’s two bandmates, the drummer and bassist who round out her band Something She. They’re played by Agyness Deyn and a particularly terrific Gayle Rankin (GLOW), and their frustrated kindness and confusion in the wake of Becky’s self-destruction gives the movie its gravity. Without their presence, Her Smell would be little more than a parade of Becky’s unending rants; with them, Perry has created a much more nuanced and compelling story. These two women knew her before she was successful, and in many ways they know her better than anybody. They understand why Becky lashes out—her anger is inextricably intertwined with her talent—even if they can’t quite keep her from doing it.

For the first three acts, the movie is punishing and difficult, even as it’s a thrill to watch Moss blows out the back of the movie theater. She embodies Becky entirely, and plays a few of her songs live onscreen, which indicate the limits of Moss’ own musicianship even as they feel entirely true to the character. (Alicia Bognanno of the band Bully wrote the songs Something She play in the film.) Beneath all the shouting and vitriol, Perry underlays a separate score by Keegan DeWitt, a muffled series of industrial noises that sound like they’re coming through several layers of concrete. It ratchets up an effective layer of subliminal dread.

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But just as Her Smell—and Becky—threaten to become unbearable, Perry lets in some light for the film’s final two acts. How he does this is probably better left unspoiled, as the movie earns the transition admirably. There isn’t anything particularly shocking or twist-y about it; rather, it’s a simple, quiet pivot that nevertheless contains real emotional potency. The fourth act, in particular, eases the viewer’s saddle sores from the rough ride of the first three, and reveals new layers of Moss’ astonishing performance.

That performance is the main reason to see Her Smell. It’s a tough movie to recommend—as I mentioned earlier, it’s a tough movie to sit through. But Moss really is one of the best actors in the world right now, and Perry knows how to conjure a precise emotional mood even as it seems like everything happening onscreen is utter chaos.

Her Smell opens at SIFF Cinema Uptown on May 5.

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