Last Night was So-So

Illustrated by Melissa Wang

Every time someone has asked about my feelings on Last Night in Soho, I’ve given a different answer. It’s a touchy subject. I fell in and out of “like” multiple times during my walk back from the theater. And yet, after a full 720 degrees of reflection, I still have no one-liner to describe my thoughts. It’s wholly disarming; the film seems to have found my blind spot of articulation. So, when someone asks, “How was Last Night in Soho?” I run through the following warring thoughts while my face twists into an almost-constipated expression:

I’m a pretty devoted Edgar Wright fan, meaning I’m facing my own veritable Sophie’s Choice on whether or not I should feel disappointed in or forgiving of this interesting but ultimately sloppy thriller. For the unfamiliar, Edgar Wright’s bread and butter is comic book levity: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Shaun of the Dead, and Hot Fuzz are honed down to a science and universally loved by nerds everywhere. They’re incredibly stylized, fast, and never too far from a joke. Most people will point to the quick camera movements, ostentatious editing, and mastery of pacing as the fundamentals of an Edgar Wright movie, but after seeing Last Night in Soho, I think that’s the forest, not the trees. There’s a self-aware playfulness that Wright exudes in his previous films, a teasing brag of “Watch me pull this off!” followed by a story where the joy lies not in the plot, but in a cinematic environment crafted solely for fun. I now realize that I wasn’t excited to see the “new Edgar Wright thriller” because I anticipated anything technical or pretentious, but because of my basic human desire to have a good time. 

Last Night in Soho feels like you were promised a trip to a new Disneyland park and were taken swiftly to a Home Depot. 

The film’s saving grace is its powerhouse of acting talent. Thomasin Mackenzie is sublime and steals the show from the very first scene. The only movie I had seen her in previously was Leave No Trace, a beautiful film where her talent lay in microexpressions. However, she steps up to bat with a stunning, comic book character-esque performance in this thriller, flavoring her very conspicuous emotions with unexpected nuance. 

Unfortunately, Mackenzie is handed a very binary role—she’s either quiet and naive or in shock and completely batshit. Although she gives it her all, her frazzled, mousy expression came to remind me of laughable cartoon characters who refuse to sleep. The bloodshot eyes, the frizzy hair, the pursed lips. Slowly, she became a caricature of the mental illnesses tacked onto her. It felt like an insult to the viewer, as if we wouldn’t have been capable of understanding the “psychological” in “psychological thriller” unless it looked like Dr. Seuss illustrated the DSM. Her performance in the beginning of the film held promise as we felt we were teetering on the precipice of something dark and terrible. But Pandora’s box is promptly blown wide open and we’re left staring blankly at the anticlimax. What could have been a rich dive into the mind of someone afflicted with a dizzying cocktail of mental disorders is instead flattened into what a bored psychiatrist might scribble onto their notepad. She is left without any deeper reserve of emotion to dig into, and we are robbed of an insidious decline into unreliable narration.

Anya Taylor Joy’s character treatment is far more criminal. As perhaps the world’s biggest (at the very least, the most ardent) Anya Taylor Joy fan, I watched this movie for her. That isn’t saying much: I would watch garbage being set on fire for three hours if Anya Taylor Joy gave a thumbs up at the end. But I was so incredibly excited to see her play a femme fatale and knock it out of the park. What I instead received was an archetype I’d pay good money to never see again: a villainized damsel in distress. Anya’s key asset in the film is her beauty and the innocence of her doe eyes, a deeply upsetting misuse of an actress capable of so much more. Her character arc is a jarring rollercoaster from slow burn to incredibly rapid and horrifying forest fire. Through no fault of her own, we’re taken all too literally through the ever-so predictable saga of a woman scorned.

Therein lies the rub: Last Night in Soho contributes to the already too-large canon of “what men think women are afraid of.” It’s the classic male-gaze sexual violence film, where beats linger too long on the exploited woman or the fearful young girl, casting the audience as the leering voyeur. Edgar Wright clearly aimed to make a feminist manifesto, a horror about what women see in men, but it’s leaden with the excitement of a man ready to catch a tragedy and film it with shaky hands and heavy breathing. The dialogue is awful (the final twist is revealed via a long monologue, leaving nothing to the imagination), and I can’t help but think that he didn’t get much farther in his pitch than “What if every man was creepy?” For women, this movie might as well be watermarked with “Not For You.” It pitches up the latent fear of losing control in a man’s world and makes it annoying and tinny. It’s almost as if Wright can’t fathom men making sense of a woman’s point of view unless each male character and action is underlined and bolded as gross and evil and up to no good. As a result, most male characters in the film are exaggerated to the point of being unrecognizable to any male viewer, rendering this narrative useless for self-reflection. 

Despite how easy it is, it’s entirely useless to just tell Edgar Wright “Boo! Go back to comedies, you hack!” Morally, the film is a nightmare, but nobody can deny that there’s something exciting beneath the film’s exterior, possibly even bordering on brilliant. The cinematography, although excessive at times, is masterful. As seen in behind the scenes footage, there is a seamless blend of CGI and practical effects, choreographed with immense precision. The film’s impeccable use of light for characterization far exceeded its use of dialogue. Visually, it is one of the most striking films of 2021, with wonderful callbacks to the style of Wright’s previous films blended with intriguing explorations into more disorienting imagery. Despite the brutal butchering of a genre, you can still hear an unmistakable whisper of Edgar Wright’s distinct voice. I’ll admit that when the film finally started to pick up the pace, I felt a familiar smile tug at my lips. Of course, the smile disappeared and reappeared erratically throughout the plot, as if I were signaling in Morse code with my mouth. But, what was good was great. What was bad was… well.

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