In Her Smell, the unfortunately named new drama from Alex Ross Perry, Elisabeth Moss does something you almost never see in movies about rock ’n’ roll: She sucks all the cool—all the sexiness, all the glamour, all the romance—out of a downward spiral into debauchery. Her character, Becky Something, is the frontwoman of a grunge-rock trio (think L7) that’s slowly inching out of multi-platinum success. When we first meet Becky, it’s at the mic, where she’s still a star, basking in adoration, elating a crowd of faithful fans with a salty-sweet riot-grrrl anthem. This is, as it turns out, a fleeting mirage of charisma. Because from the moment she walks out of the spotlight, we see the real Becky, the one her colleagues and handlers see, the alcoholic diva on the warpath. And Moss attacks the role with a fearless lack of vanity, daring to make this nosediving rock star not just unlikable but downright irritating—as hard to endure as chipped nails dragging slowly down a chalkboard.
Over the years, Moss has become a pillar of character-actor reliability on both the big and small screen. But she’s done her most volatile, transfixing work for Perry, playing women in free fall: the scorned lover of Listen Up Philip, clawing her way through a wounding breakup, and the crumbling houseguest heroine of Queen Of Earth, coming unglued in the key of Repulsion. With Her Smell, Perry offers the Mad Men alum her meatiest starring role yet, and she sinks her teeth into it hard. Staring out from furious black holes of eyeshadow, her face twisted into a glitter-caked sneer, the actor plays Becky as a tornado of intoxicated hostility, fixing always for a fight. At the same time, there’s an element of performance to her rampages: the rhyming, the alliterating, the insults hurled in a mocking sing-song cadence. Are the drugs and booze talking, or is Becky putting on a show even off the stage? We could be watching Gena Rowlands play Courtney Love in an alternate-universe biopic.
What Perry has done has taken a standard rise-and-fall Behind The Music fable and cut away everything but the fall. The opening passage, set in the narrow backstage hallways and dingy green rooms of a New York City punk venue, establishes the status quo of waning fortunes and friendships. A few years out from her Spin-cover heyday, Becky hasn’t just sabotaged the superstar status of her group, Something She, which has been essentially demoted from arenas to clubs, thanks to her habit of flaking on tours. She’s also pushed her bandmates, bassist Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn) and drummer Ali van der Wolff (GLOW’s Gayle Rankin), to the end of their ropes. At two-and-a-half hours, Her Smell wants us to feel their pain; it locks the audience into the extended spectacle of Becky’s self-destruction, as she successfully alienates everyone in her life, all while sucking new souls into her gravitational pull like a dying star. (The pressure-cooker second act, set within a recording studio, finds the singer leeching off the admiration of her prospective replacements, twentysomething rock sirens played by Cara Delevingne, Ashley Benson, and Dylan Gelula.)
The structure—five acts that unfold basically in real time within windowless buildings, people entering and exiting—is inherently theatrical. It also recalls Steve Jobs, of all movies, in how a reoccurring cast of characters keeps getting caught in the orbit of this one abrasive, outsize personality. Becky chews through the head of her record label (Eric Stoltz), who’s hemorrhaging cash on what used to be his flagship act; through her ex-rocker ex-husband (Dan Stevens), stuck begging for support, financial and otherwise, in raising their young daughter; through her own heartbroken mother (Virginia Madsen). Just about every conversation in the movie revolves around Becky, which makes sense when you realize that Her Smell is really an addiction story—a drama about how somehow locked in the grip of their vices can become the black hole at the center of multiple lives. This dynamic is complicated, of course, by the fact that Becky’s whole network of support is also financially tied to her.
Perry, the NYC video-clerk-turned-indie-maverick, has a weakness for artificially stylized dialogue; there are moments when the downright stanky, dive-joint verisimilitude of Her Smell is betrayed by a particularly purple turn of phrase like, “I’m on my last credit line and you’re on life number nine.” On the other hand, Perry is drawing explicit parallels between one kind of stage and another—even implying that a life in the musical limelight is really an opening night that never ends—so the heightened language makes a certain sense. This is, in many respects, his most confident and least derivative movie: a claustrophobic panic attack of a melodrama, its chaos nurtured and tempered by a murderer’s row of collaborators. (Besides the superbly reactive ensemble, meeting Moss’ tempest of bile head-on, Perry also leans on the queasily close-quarters camerawork of cinematographer Sean Price Williams and the typically jarring cuts of editor and fellow filmmaker Robert Greene.)
If the writer-director has a gift, it’s for orchestrating caustic confrontation, and for a while, that’s mainly what Her Smell offers, impressively and at length. But just when Becky’s multi-year meltdown reaches its shocking crescendo, a stretch of stillness and reflection arrives—quiet conversation replacing screaming matches, regret supplanting antagonism, the muffled roar of guitar giving way to a surprisingly poignant piano rendition of a Bryan Adams hit. There’s a fifth chapter after this fourth one, and it hinges on the hanging question of whether Becky has exorcised her demons or just temporarily subdued them. Is this the bridge before the final chorus, the quiet in between the loud? Wherever Her Smell offers its heroine salvation or damnation, the film peaks, emotionally, in its penultimate chapter. It’s here that Moss, after a solid hour of unhinged vitriol, shows us more than the misbehavior, brightening the glimmers of clarity she offered earlier into a full picture of a person—and in the process, helping us understand why it was so hard for anyone, for everyone, to give up on a human supernova. Maybe this, after all, is the real Becky Something. And maybe there’s a little of the real Moss in there, too.