‘Poor Things’ Review — Emma Stone and Yorgos Lanthimos Create a Weird World

Movies


The Big Picture

  • Poor Things is a visually stunning film that showcases Yorgos Lanthimos’ unique vision and storytelling capabilities.
  • Emma Stone delivers a phenomenal performance as Bella Baxter, capturing the character’s growth and complexity.
  • The entire cast excels in their roles, bringing the eccentricities of the film’s universe to life and making it a captivating and ambitious cinematic experience.


From the very first frame of Yorgos Lanthimos’ tremendous Poor Things, everything feels off. The sky is a cloudy blue that seems unnatural, Jerskin Fendrix’s haunting score creeps its way down your spine, and we watch as a woman jumps to her death, almost a speck in a massive body of water. But for those familiar with the work of Lanthimos, from his comically disturbing Dogtooth to the more straightforward 18th-century horrors of his last film, The Favourite, this almost feels like the culmination of everything he has ever made. In his past films, we’ve watched the unnatural, wild worlds hidden within our own, but with Poor Things, the world is whatever Lanthimos wants it to be.

Poor Things

The incredible tale about the fantastical evolution of Bella Baxter, a young woman brought back to life by the brilliant and unorthodox scientist Dr. Godwin Baxter.

Release Date
September 8, 2023

Director
Yorgos Lanthimos

Cast
Mark Ruffalo, Willem Dafoe, Margaret Qualley, Emma Stone

Rating
R

Genres
Horror, Sci-Fi

Considering Poor Things is about a person discovering the world for the first time (or second, technically), Lanthimos’ film—with its unnatural colors, fisheye lenses, and storybook qualities—feels like the world we know in an entirely new light. It’s familiar, but foreign, like a memory half-remembered correctly. Not only are we given the most unfiltered, brilliant look at Lanthimos’ vision and capabilities as a storyteller, Poor Things gives us the best performance of Emma Stone’s career, a staggering visual accomplishment, a hilarious screenplay brought to life by an incredible ensemble cast, and, quite simply, one of—if not the best—films of 2023.


What Is ‘Poor Things’ About?

We come to find out that the woman who jumped to her death at the beginning of the film died and was brought back to life by an odd scientist, Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), who replaced the woman’s brain with the brain of her unborn baby. Baxter’s “creation” is named Bella Baxter (Stone), who both literally and figuratively, returns to the world with the brain of a child. Bella is a marvel, learning about the world around her while stuck in the confines of Baxter’s home, which features other experiments like a duck mixed with a goat, and a dog-chicken.

Dr. Baxter brings home one of his medical students, Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), to help chronicle the progression of Bella, and the two soon fall in love and get engaged. But before long, a snide, deceptive lawyer, Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), comes to the Baxter home and whisks Bella away for a trip around the world. As Bella continues her education, she learns how the larger world works, who she is, and wants to be.

‘Poor Things’ Is Yorgos Lanthimos’ Vision on a Grand Scale

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Image via Searchlight Pictures

In Lanthimos’ filmography, Poor Things is on a scale unlike any other the director has ever attempted before, yet sticks to many of the same themes he’s been intrigued by in his career. For example, the way Dr. Baxter teaches Bella occasionally reminds of how the parents taught the children in Lanthimos’ breakout film Dogtooth, and the strange reality that Lanthimos creates feels right in line with his other films, like The Lobster or The Killing of a Sacred Deer.

Narratively, however, Poor Things pushes Lanthimos in fascinating ways, as this becomes an uncharacteristically warm and optimistic film, thanks to Tony McNamara’s wonderful script, adapted from Alasdair Gray’s original novel. McNamara takes Gray’s story, gets rid of any of the uncertainty about whether this is actually happening—which the book questions frequently—and creates a screenplay that still manages to feel distinctly like a Lanthimos project.

Behind the camera, Lanthimos gets to make the world in his image, a vision of the early 1900s, but with flying ships and colors that simply can’t be real. Every shot feels like a tremendous accomplishment as cinematographer Robbie Ryan (The Favourite, C’mon C’mon) makes every scene pop with some beautiful choice. As we watch the world that Lanthimos, McNamara, and Ryan have crafted, we can’t help but look at it with the wide-eyed wonder that Bella does—and that’s exactly the point.

Emma Stone Gives One of the Year’s Best Performances in ‘Poor Things’

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Image via Searchlight Pictures

Yet even with all this, it’s the phenomenal performance from Emma Stone that makes this story come to life. Stone is giving a performance unlike we’ve ever seen before, as we watch Bella grow from having the mindset of a toddler to becoming a fully fleshed-out human being with wants, desires, dreams, and a fan of “furious jumping” (aka sex). Along every step of the way, we entirely buy Stone’s take on the character, and even though the story is absurdist in the best way, she always feels grounded. Bella is alluring, entrancing, and bewildering, and her way of viewing the world for the first time can’t help but draw people to her. Stone plays Bella to perfection, as we watch her become a woman with all the struggles and frustrations that that includes. Stone manages to make Bella heartbreaking, hilarious, sexy, surprising, and ingenious, and we fully feel as though we’ve watched the development of a human being over the film’s 2 1/2 hours. This isn’t just Stone’s best performance in a career that’s already given us so many roles, it’s also one of the best performances of the year.

But this acting excellence is true throughout the entire cast. Most notable is Ruffalo, who gets to be a gleefully evil cad, a childish adult who is only motivated by his whims. Ruffalo is hysterical in a way he’s never been before, a mustache-twirly villain of sorts whose every line of irritation and anxiety only makes us like him less, and yet, still want more of him. Dafoe’s Dr. Baxter is the type of unusual but compassionate character that Dafoe thrives as, a man who was an experiment made by his own father, and who still wears the scars of his father. Poor Things could’ve easily portrayed Dr. Baxter as a mad scientist, and he kind of is in some regards (the aforementioned experiments have left the doctor to make his own gastric juices, which means at every meal, he burps up a brown bubble that pops above the table), but Dafoe and McNamara’s script ground this character as much as he can be, making him a loving pseudo-father to Bella.

Of course, as this journey progresses, we get to see a myriad of wonderful performances. Youssef’s Max is a perplexed but affectionate man who waits for Bella to return to him while she figures out who she is. Jerrod Carmichael and Kathryn Hunter both play characters who show the profound and dark truths that Bella has been shielded from, while Christopher Abbott and Margaret Qualley get their own wild moments in a film that is packed with them. This is an unbelievable reality that Lanthimos and McNamara have put together, but this cast makes all its eccentricities and abnormalities feel perfectly in line with this dream of a film.

Poor Things is a staggering accomplishment of a movie, a film that feels so uniquely Lanthimos, and yet, with a heart and a shocking amount of joy and enthusiasm that shows the filmmaker pushing his style and boundaries as much as possible. Stone is perfection as Bella Baxter, taking a wild idea and turning it into something beautiful and empowering, and the entire cast fleshes this world out into more than just an alluring wonderland of possibilities. Poor Things is a visionary delight, an entertaining and thoroughly ambitious project that makes the audience feel like they’re seeing the world for the first time. It isn’t just the best film from Lanthimos so far, it’s also potentially the best film of 2023.

Rating: A

Poor Things comes to theaters in the U.S. on December 8 in limited release and expands wide on December 22. Click below for showtimes.

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