This image was taken from the official trailer for “Blonde,” distributed by Netflix.

Andrew Dominik’s new overwhelmingly indulgent film “Blonde,” his first feature film since “Killing Them Softly” 10 years ago, is a shocking choice for Netflix to produce. For a studio whose productions often feel sterile, to create something so provocative is quite the welcome departure from their usual material. Or, it would be if the film was any good.

“Blonde” is based on Joyce Carol Oates’s biographical fiction novel of the same name. Framing itself as fiction allows the film to get away with narrative liberties a straightforward biopic couldn’t. That said, the choice to make a film about a real person still requires reckoning with that person’s life, and “Blonde” does not tackle its subject matter with the empathy needed to overcome this hurdle.

Dominik is not right for the material. His cold, blunt style of writing keeps Marilyn Monroe (Ana de Armas, “Deep Water”) constantly at a distance. That is an intentional choice, but the exploration of Monroe’s character never feels as empathetic as it should. Monroe is the POV character, but the film feels like it doesn’t understand her enough to fully flesh her out. Whether the audience cares about the character is completely dependent on the viewer’s prior relationship with Monroe — the older couple sitting a few rows behind me sounded like they were crying throughout, but the younger members of the audience weren’t as engaged. With Monroe’s problems explained away by one or two causal events and resulting behavioral traits — like calling every man in her life “daddy” due to her absent father — the film never got far enough below the surface to explore its themes of trauma, violence and exploitation in any meaningful way.

De Armas is doing her best with barebones material. Her performance, an impressive evocation of Monroe, adds subtlety that can’t be found in the dialogue or the character’s actions. Through minor changes in facial expressions, we see immense pain breaking through the Marilyn persona that Norma Jeane has created for herself.

Another redeeming quality is the film’s visual style. It constantly switches between different aspect ratios (from the confining, narrow 4:3 to the expansive 2.39:1 Cinemascope widescreen) and bounces between color and black and white, creating a world in which Monroe (and the audience) is never sure what is reality. The color switching in particular does a nice job of tipping the audience off when we are witnessing the dark, traumatic experiences of Norma Jeane or the glitzy, colorful experiences of Marilyn.

But all of that technical brilliance and stellar performance work is in service of a very shallow character study. Despite her obvious troubles with exploitation, abuse and trauma, the film appears to think all that could have been avoided if Monroe had her father around as a young girl. This has the effect of absolving powerful men who use their positions to take advantage of her — or the media and the public’s objectification of Monroe — of responsibility for her rapidly declining mental health.

At points, the film tries to reckon with the concepts of consent and autonomy, but for some reason, it focuses far less on JFK, Joe DiMaggio and the studio executives who ignored Monroe’s lack of consent. Instead, it is more interested in her lack of autonomy in deciding whether to get an abortion early in the film and how this impacted her mental health for the rest of her life. From there, Monroe becomes obsessed with babies — so much so that there are multiple scenes of her and a CGI fetus having conversations, making Monroe feel guilty about her abortion. It is a risky choice given the climate around abortion rights after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade a few months ago. Handled with more subtlety and empathy, the strange angle may have worked, but here it feels clunky and in poor taste — playing Monroe’s song “Bye Bye Baby” from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” immediately post-abortion was a laughably on-the-nose touch.

Much controversy has surrounded “Blonde,” specifically concerning the further exploitation of Monroe and the NC-17 rating. The rating is overblown and likely a marketing gimmick. The film isn’t significantly shocking or obscene enough to warrant the rating nor does it make up for the lack of subtlety in its handling of Monroe and the narrative. But the question of whether this film continues the exploitation of Monroe decades after her death is an interesting one. Certainly, there are exploitative elements within it; Monroe is raped multiple times in the film, and it moves on quickly without even attempting to provide some commentary on a Hollywood system that covered up and normalized abhorrent behavior like this. Yet, “Blonde” is explicitly marketed as a work of fiction. However, will people who aren’t as tuned in to the context surrounding the film believe it to be true, thus further harming Monroe’s reputation? The film’s real crime isn’t that it ruins Monroe’s legacy, but that it doesn’t add anything to it. “Blonde” doesn’t say enough about Monroe, her life or the state of the society that led to her death to justify its bloated runtime or even its existence.

Film Beat Editor Mitchel Green can be reached at