The first line sung by Elizabeth Moss’s hard-edged central rocker in Her Smell is “I always flirt with death”. It’s a line that ends up being prophetic of the whole movie; a high-wire portrait of an explosive rock-star who poses a constant threat of destruction to both herself and those surrounding her. Moss’s performance as Becky Something, lead singer of 90s grunge band Something She, obviously channels the likes of Courtney Love but it’s also its own distinct beast: with this and Us releasing so close together, Moss is quickly establishing herself as one of the more uniquely atomic performers we have.
Writer/director Alex Ross Perry has cited the films of Paul Verhoeven as an influence here and it’s most apparent in how truly abrasive Her Smell is. Perry tells this story of implosion, exorcism, and rebirth in five acts, and in the first three, his direction combined with Moss’s manic central performance is practically daring you to turn the movie off in disgust.
It is a very grueling watch, amplified massively by the gloriously grungy cinematography from Good Time DoP and regular Perry collaborator Sean Price Williams. Most of the action takes place in claustrophobic, labyrinthian backstage rooms covered in sickly neon lighting as tensions between our ensemble rise to a boiling point. Becky flies through these corridors like a demon of rock and roll, wreaking havoc and demolishing relationships with all those close to her in a truly anxiety-inducing manner.
Becky Something is a screen presence both electrifying and abhorrent. Moss darts across the screen like a bolt of lightning, entirely unpredictable from moment to moment and constantly teetering terrifyingly close to total self-immolation. The character isn’t just a total monster though – Her Smell is very much a film about addiction, and about a woman struggling and failing to reconcile her persona as a rock star with her insecurities as a friend and as a mother.
The stacked supporting cast act as a perfect grounding to Becky’s mayhem and a window into the havoc she causes. Ashley Benson, Cara Delevingne and Dylan Gelula are fantastic as a younger band (inspired by Becky) who quickly learn not to meet your heroes when they become the latest pawns to be manipulated by her toxic behavior. Dan Stevens is typically reliable as Becky’s radio host ex-husband, a character who managed to move on from the dirtbag life and wishes Becky could do the same for the sake of their daughter, while Eric Stoltz is a delight as the hapless manager constantly trying to keep things together.
Agyness Deyn and Gayle Rankin are phenomenal as the other members of Something She – never treated as inferior to Becky but rather just people totally exasperated by the behavior of a friend who’s making it so difficult to try and help them. It’s a truly magnetic ensemble, every character so vivid and perfectly realized that they feel as though they could each be leading their own movie.
Ultimately, there has to be a breaking point for Becky, and Perry follows this with final segments of genuinely stunning catharsis and sincerity. Even in this section of the movie Moss’s performance represents a remarkably delicate balancing act as the claws of addiction are ever present and threatening to drag Becky and her friends back to hell. It’s a nerve-shredding conclusion, but also deeply sobering in the compassion it allows a character who could so easily be reduced to a monster.
The masterstroke of Her Smell isn’t just in how Perry rightfully depicts the abuse dealt by Becky for how toxic it is, but in how he understands and sympathizes with the broken woman behind it. Because for as destructive as Becky’s tendency to flirt with death ends up being, it’s also the reason it’s so wrenching to see her struggle to figure out why and how she should put the pieces back together again.