'Last Night in Soho' Review
Last Night in Soho is the latest by acclaimed indie-cum-mainstream auteur Edgar Wright. Featuring a plot with the supernatural elements, bizarre stylistic shifts, and a wild tonal imbalance, Wright delivers the second giallo tribute of the year after James Wan’s Malignant. Unlike Malignant, Soho fails (almost) entirely to create a tense atmosphere and is bereft of the energetic style Wright usually brings to everything he makes. It’s almost stunning to consider the man who made Scott Pilgrim just over ten years ago has now delivered such a humorless, colorless mediocrity.
It’s safe to say that after Baby Driver, many people came away with the realization that he needs to either work with Simon Pegg or good source material (like the aforementioned Pilgrim) to deliver a story with any real heart. While technically proficient on every level, it’s clear that Wright’s priorities were with syncing music to precise action beats rather than creating compelling character relationships like the Butterman-Angel bromance in Hot Fuzz. Ansel Elgort’s (ew) character in Baby Driver is a flat protagonist with a dead parent. Wow. Where have we seen that before? But the thing that makes Baby Driver stand apart from Soho is that it more or less fulfills its central action/music conceit, delivering high octane sequence after sequence of pure fun.
Soho begins with Ellie, an aspiring fashion designer, taking up residency at a college in London to pursue her dreams, a la Argento’s Suspiria. Except in Suspiria, the world isn’t horribly dull and gray like in Soho; Argento’s is commonly referred to as a candy-colored nightmare, with garish, over-the-top set design and gaudy colors. Wright makes the brilliant move of making every frame of the present-day portions horrid to look at, shooting everything in a series of snooze-inducing mediums. A particularly disappointing moment comes when Ellie’s roommate Jocasta pours five shots for the people in their dorm. Unlike in Wright’s past film The World’s End, which gives us all these shots of the beers being filled from a dramatic god’s eye close-up on the froth bubbling up from the bottom of the glass, he chooses to shoot it like someone who just figured out how to set up a camera on a tripod.
To be fair, the stylistic choices in these sections do have a purpose. Ellie experiences nothing but hurt and rejection from the modern world, which seems terrible in comparison to her idealized version of the ‘60s that the film later attempts to deconstruct. That said, there’s zero reason to make your GIALLO HORROR FILM so stylistically lacking for major stretches. In terms of Ellie’s nostalgia, well, it’s all we really know about her: the film reminds us every other scene that she “is doing a bit of a ‘60s thing” with her hair. The banter with her grandmother at the beginning is closer to a Pure Flix release than Hot Fuzz’s quick and witty dialogue. Even though the screenplay was co-written by Wright and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, a woman, the movie isn’t really able to depict women outside of their appearance and obsession with other women’s appearances.
I don’t say that because she wants to be a fashion designer. I say it because Wright defines her entire life around her burning desire to imitate the look of the supposedly dead woman whose perspective she sees in her visions. Sandie, a young woman from the ‘60s trying to make it in showbusiness, is quickly taken advantage of by lecherous men who want nothing more than to use her body. Ellie is haunted by the ghosts of these men, who lamely stalk her through the streets of London in sequences with zero tension, ostensibly to claim her for themselves, too. It’s a tale as old as time in the entertainment industry, so it’s absolutely incredible that Wright bungles something that should write itself. Many characters intimate throughout that Sandie chose to become and remain a prostitute which, bafflingly, turns out to be true. Sandie didn’t actually die; she turns out to be the old landlady renting Ellie her room. She killed the men who used her with no provocation on their part, just because she was frustrated with where she was. The ghosts of the men then beg Ellie to help them by killing the elderly Sandie.
Many issues arise here. The first is the most obvious: in real life, Sandie would not have been able to opt out. Yet this film implies over and over that she could have left any time she wanted, placing all the blame on her for continuing sex work. This is another issue: this movie shames sex workers and paints them as murderers. It’s appropriate for a movie this chaste and not very gory, I guess, to have the message that sex work is tied to violence, but it’s a message I find sort of repugnant given the history of violence towards women, not men, in the sex work industry. The men here are painted as the victims; they literally howl, “Save us!” at Ellie multiple times. “Oh no! The scary woman is gonna hurt these poor little men!” Puh-lease.
The issue with Soho is that it tries far too hard to say something (nostalgia blinds us to the horrible things our idols have done), but by placing a female sex worker in the role of said idol and woefully mishandling this element, it loses all impact. It needed to care less about sexual politics and more about providing genuine camp thrills. Occasionally, an appropriately sleazy or psychedelic flourish momentarily uplifts the mediocre material, but too infrequently to save the movie. Instead, you’re left with a dumb mess directed by a guy who’s clearly too scared to be scary.