The Neon Demon 2016
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Abbey Lee, Bella Heathcoate, Desmond Harrington, Christina Hendricks, and Keanu Reeves
When aspiring model Jesse moves to Los Angeles, her youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will take any means necessary to get what she has.
Following its premiere at Cannes, The Neon Demon (the latest piece of art-house cinema from polarizing writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn of Drive and Only God Forgives fame, not to mention several other noteworthy independent films before really breaking out into the semi-public eye with Ryan Gosling led films) was booed, and then apparently received a 16 minute standing ovation from the other audience members in attendance. This needs to be pointed out because the fact of the matter is, reviews (even my own) for a film by Refn are pretty much worthless.
Sure, I can paint you a mental picture of what the experience is like, but at the end of the day, whether you like the movie or not will most likely be completely random, and not necessarily even defined to one’s own personal taste of cinema. Refn is all over the map in terms of quality, with different moviegoers liking certain movies above others (or just outright hating them all), but there is no denying that the hypnotic and sensual imagery he consistently puts on screen is generally unforgettable.
Furthermore, that also applies as an accurate description of The Neon Demon, which moves at such a glacial pace, yet for some reason, amidst all the nothingness going on is a movie that never really is boring. For instance, some of the dialogue on hand is brutally honest and a disheartening reflection of the mentality of many young woman (some underage) aspiring to make it in the Los Angeles modeling scene. Jesse (played with elegant innocence and humbleness by Elle Fanning) is a runaway 16-year-old with deceased parents trying to make it in what is ultimately a highly predatory profession centered on beauty and vanity, because she confesses that she has no talent, but is completely aware that she is beautiful, and that she can make money off of it. It’s a tough mindset to accept, but she isn’t wrong.
Naturally, success comes easy and goes to Jesse’s head, but what’s really disarming and unexpected is how Elle Fanning continues to portray the character in an overly polite manner, even when doing something such as admitting to her kind of/sort of boyfriend that there is no such thing as beauty on the inside. The Neon Demon is a film just as vapid as the modeling scene itself.
That is nothing though, as the film also contains numerous supporting characters that all are fueled by jealousy or other ugly ulterior motives. Refn also uses this to his advantage to essentially create a movie that is an art-house Mean Girls set in the seedy underbelly of modeling. Jesse’s peers want to be her… literally, and because I would rather not spoil just how batshit fucked up The Neon Demon becomes, that’s all I’m going to say about that. The keyword however, is literally. This movie is so mental that Keanu Reeves playing a teenage rapist is only about the third most fucked up thing in the movie.
Nothing about this ends well, but that is to be expected not even five minutes into the movie. The trance-like atmosphere, catchy thumping techno score from frequent Refn collaborator Cliff Martinez, and bizarre visual imagery will assuredly keep viewers wide-eyed and on their toes, but most importantly in constant certain fear that all of the success and good times will at some point spiral into a nightmare of the haunting depravity that Refn clearly loves displaying with symbolism.
It’s just that, for most of the duration of The Neon Demon, things do go by extremely slow, making two hours feel like three hours. Every three minute scene full of characters taking their time exchanging dialogue or staring into nothingness all feel as if they could have been severely cut in half, but Refn doesn’t care. He makes movies for himself that he wants to watch, and everyone else is either along for the ride or kicked to the curb. As a matter of fact, he seems to enjoy having some professional critics label his work as utter pretentious trash. It’s not trash though, but rather highly stylized to the point where plot is non-existent, which works for Refn because he has the mind to conjure up some truly unsettling, disturbing, and memorable key sequences. Whether you love or hate The Neon Demon, it’s hard to imagine someone actually forgetting about it for a very long time.
For as frustrating a filmmaker Refn is (this film absolutely does test my patience at times even though it’s never boring, but is lacking in any real plot or characters to either root for or hate), he is one of the most interesting auteurs working today. It is highly bizarre and uncomfortable viewing (the last 30 minutes or so will most definitely cause a number of prudish moviegoers to outright leave the theater), and I hesitate to even call it a great movie, but The Neon Demon is something deeply disturbing and haunting that should be seen.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★