Neon Demon, The (France/Denmark/U.S., 2016)June 25, 2016
The Neon Demon isn’t only the title of this film, it’s a description of what it represents. Beneath the pulsating music and strobe-lit fluorescent visuals, this is as pernicious and invidious a motion picture as one is likely to discover in a multiplex. Director Nicolas Winding Refn might consider this “a horror movie”, but it requires only the addition of two small words for accuracy: “a horror of a movie.” A lifeless and obvious commentary on the fashion/modeling industry, The Neon Demon has nothing to recommend it. Pretentious and self-indulgent, it seems tailor-made to appeal to lovers of the obtuse and inscrutable until it takes a left-turn into schlocky, gore-drenched splatter imagery. Horror fans will be so bored by the first 90 minutes that they will have either walked out or fallen into a coma by the time the blood starts flowing. (Another horror staple - T&A - is similarly restricted to the final 30 minutes.)
I have read that parts of The Neon Demon were improvised. It would seem that “parts of” might mean “most of.” The film lacks a coherent screenplay with scenes seemingly thrown together into something only vaguely resembling a chronological order. There’s no sense of character development and no opportunity for a viewer to form an emotional bond with someone on screen - everything is too hip for that. The dialogue is awkward and stilted - Shakespeare sounds more conversational than how people talk in this film. Acting is wooden because Refn is more interested in how his actors look than in what they say or do.
To the extent that The Neon Demon has a story to tell, it’s about the arrival of girl-next-door Jesse (Elle Fanning, striving to make us forget that she’s among the most promising of today’s young actresses) in decadent Los Angeles. She’s there to become a model and, because she has what everyone recognizes as “it,” she is soon courted by popular fashion designers and photographers. She forms a friendship with makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone in full goth mode) and earns the attention of a brutish motel manager (Keanu Reeves, hiding in the shadows) and a mountain lion. But success comes at a price - the hatred of models like leggy Sarah (Abbey Lee) and plastic surgery-addicted Gigi (Bella Heathcote) who have paid their dues and suddenly find themselves rungs below the celebrated newcomer.
Admittedly, the fashion industry with its inflated sense of importance and warped sense of beauty is ripe for criticism but The Neon Demon accomplishes this with a laughable banality. Refn, blinded by his own sense of greatness (he brands opening credit panels with his monogram), fails to realize he’s tilling soil that already suffers from overplanting. Moreover, many of the characteristics he eviscerates in the fashion industry are true of this film.
The best parts of The Neon Demon are stale and tedious. But to focus on those would be to ignore the movie’s repugnant aspects. The most shocking of these is represented by a scene in which a woman is forced to open her mouth as wide as possible to accommodate a knife’s entry. With its violent sexual overtones, this sequence is as disturbing as movie moments come. Some viewers may be more offended by the graphic lesbian necrophilia (in which only one of the participants reaches orgasm) or the cannibalistic orgy (which results in one character vomiting up an intact eyeball). Fun times.
For The Neon Demon to work, it’s necessary to buy into Jesse’s “it” quality, but Refn never allows us to observe the arresting characteristic that mesmerizes everyone who meets her. Elle Fanning is attractive and talented (although the filmmaker does his best to obscure the latter quality) but there’s nothing remarkable about Jesse. She’s pretty but ordinary. Maybe that’s the point - that in a world where everything is fake, plainness stands out. Is that an interesting observation? Not really. Like most of what The Neon Demon has to say, it’s obvious.
To be fair to Refn, he lobs out some striking images, although a lot of them are gratuitous in a show-offish way. Like the throbbing music that dominates the soundtrack of many scenes, they are designed to keep the viewer from losing interest too early in the proceedings. Stylistically, Refn seems to be taking his cues from David Lynch, although his flourishes feel like second-rate knock-offs. There are also similarities to the work of Gaspar Noe, but Noe (for all his flaws) offers a raw immediacy that Refn never finds beneath the artifice.
I would label this film as unwatchable, a designation I bestow on only a select group of movies. Undoubtedly, there will be a group of film-goers who will bow at The Neon Demon’s altar, seeing it as the work of an underappreciated genius. I imagine members of that cult will number fewer than those who walk out as soon as one character starts humping a corpse. Refn broke onto the international scene with titles like Pusher, Bronson, and Drive. His rising star took a major hit with Only God Forgives, one of 2013’s worst films. At the time, I thought it would be difficult for Refn to make something less engaging and more pretentious than Only God Forgives. I was wrong and this time, there’s no forgiveness.
Earlier this year, I wrote the following line in my review of The Brothers Grimsby: “It’s dangerous to make statements in March along the lines of ‘this is the worst movie of 2016’ but if there’s something more horrible waiting in ambush then it may be time to retire from this line of work.” At the time, I obviously hadn’t anticipated The Neon Demon. Who could?
Neon Demon, The (France/Denmark/U.S., 2016)
Cast: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Keanu Reeves
Screenplay: Nicolas Winding Refn and Mary Laws & Polly Stenham
Cinematography: Natasha Braier
Music: Cliff Martinez
U.S. Distributor: Broad Green Pictures