Poor Things is a sort of steampunk gothic fairy tale: a Frankenstein-esque twist on a coming-of-age story. The film follows Bella Baxter (Emma Stone), a woman brought back to life by the brilliant and unorthodox scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). Hungry for the worldliness she is lacking, Bella runs off with Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), a slick and debauched lawyer, on a whirlwind adventure across the continents. Free from the prejudices of her times, Bella grows steadfast in her purpose to stand for equality and liberation.
Poor Things comes from filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos; if you’ve seen Lanthimos’ work before, you know he likes to get a little (or a lot) weird with his movies. As with any media dubbed strange and unusual, your enjoyment of Poor Things will likely depend on whether or not it hits your preferred type of strange. But regardless of personal preference, Poor Things is undeniably an achievement in filmmaking, a meticulously crafted feature with a specific vision and standout performances.
This cast rises to the challenge
Bella Baxter is a doozy of a role. She quite literally goes from mental infancy to adulthood over the course of the film, finding herself intellectually, emotionally, sexually – hell, even philosophically. But you know who has the range? Emma Stone. She’s all over the place in Poor Things, and I mean that in a good way.
Stone gives this one her all, navigating physical comedy, shifting accents, expansive and exponential character growth, and more sex scenes than any other single film I’ve seen. (Side note: can anyone tell me what makes a movie NC-17, if everything in Poor Things doesn’t get you there?) Stone easily expresses Bella’s curiosity and desire to learn more about herself and the world; it’s also delightful to see her navigate this exploration with no hang ups about societal conventions or expectations.
Similarly, Willem Dafoe unsurprisingly navigates his role of mad scientist/father figure with ease. As Dr. Godwin Baxter (“God” to Bella), he always manages to hit the balance between a detached, logical man of science and a loving parent.
Mark Ruffalo… WOW. Honestly, though Stone is undeniably a brilliant lead, Ruffalo makes the movie for me. On paper, Duncan Wedderburn is petulant, controlling, and out of touch. But Ruffalo makes a meal of the performance, turning Duncan’s every line and action into something so wonderfully funny, campy, weird, and over the top that you can’t help but love him.
One of the most visually impressive worlds in cinema this year
Poor Things delivers one of this year’s most visually distinct, unique on-screen worlds in cinema. Everything from the set design to the costuming impressively builds out the universe and immerses the viewer in the story. Lanthimos shifts from black and white to beautifully saturated colors, immersing us in a world of stormy seas, extravagant airships, ballrooms, and even medical theaters. It’s a world you’re excited to venture out and explore, just like Bella is.
Poor Things is a film that’s very consciously shot, with a specific visual style. I can see where the fisheye lens work and other choices could lose people; these are often choices that draw attention to the filmmaking itself, which is a turnoff for some viewers. However, I liked that aspect. To me, it adds to the dreamy, storybook-like feel of the film.
‘Poor Things’ overstays its welcome a bit
Probably the biggest issue with Poor Things is it feels like it overstays its welcome a bit. At over 140 minutes, it’s a long film. The ending arc, which sees Bella’s husband from her previous life suddenly reappear, feels tacked on unnecessarily. Besides setting up a fun final gag with a goat, it doesn’t seem to change Bella or the trajectory of the story very much. Essentially, the film could have done without it.
Alternatively, I enjoyed the world and the characters enough that I would have been happy to see Poor Things play out as a limited series instead of a feature. The extra time would have allowed for the space to explore more of the interesting characters Bella crosses paths with, including making the husband plot feel more relevant and thoughtfully developed. As is as a feature however, I would have liked this one to wrap up a bit sooner, or find a better way to integrate the husband into the story.
Overall, Poor Things is a pinnacle of unique, original filmmaking. As visually stunning as it is strange, it really transports you to another world. Stone, Dafoe, and Ruffalo give standout performances that complement Lanthimos’ vision. At the obvious risk of sounding pretentious, it’s not just a film, but an experience.
Poor Things premieres in theaters December 8.