[The following review contains MAJOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]
It’s remarkable how changing a single ingredient can significantly alter an entire recipe.
For much of its running time, Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa feels like a variation on the themes that Paul Schrader explored in his screenplays for Taxi Driver, Rolling Thunder, and Hardcore—an uncompromisingly dark meditation on repressed, impotent masculine rage boiling over into senseless, directionless violence. In a performance that earned him an Oscar nomination, Bob Hoskins plays George, a low-level gangster just returning to London following a seven-year stint in prison. He is, to put it mildly, a flawed protagonist: his short temper and naked bigotry have alienated his wife, while his uncouth and erratic behavior have made his former boss (Michael Caine, personifying the “evil is cool” trope) reluctant to rehire him. With few other employment options, George accepts a job as a glorified chauffeur for Simone, a high-class call girl serving only the wealthiest clientele. Although he initially bristles at the thankless “errand boy” assignment, he gradually begins to sympathize with his new charge as he learns more about her traumatic past as an abused streetwalker; eventually, he even agrees to help her track down and rescue an old friend that she was forced to leave behind when she escaped from her sadistic pimp.
In a surprising twist, however, Simone is not a mere prop in George’s redemption narrative; he is a prop in her revenge plot—a tool to be exploited when his skills are convenient... and discarded once his presence has become a liability. Indeed, during the film’s suspenseful climax, she is the one that guns down her tormentors—and, had there been enough bullets in the chamber, she’d have done the same to her erstwhile protector.
It seems like a relatively minor alteration to the familiar formula at first glance, but giving narrative agency to Iris’ counterpart rather than Travis Bickle’s makes a huge difference.