What…did I….just watch?
Not for the uninitiated or those with weak stomachs, everyone’s favorite polarizing surrealist director Nicolas Winding Refn is back with the lurid, gory, sadistic, and horrifyingly beautiful “The Neon Demon.” This film makes a bold statement about the shallowness of Hollywood and the fashion industry in the most violent, brutal, bloody and disturbing way possible.
The film’s strength is in its breathtaking visuals. Refn once again establishes himself as a true auteur at the top of the visionary food chain. Even if you are one of the many who see him as pompous and pretentious, there’s no denying that few have quite the mastery of the craft of the visual arts as he does. This film belongs in a modern art museum.
It doesn’t matter that there’s not much of a plot: teenage ingénue Jesse (Elle Fanning) moves to Los Angeles to chase her dreams of becoming a model. She soon finds herself living in a sketchy motel with lecherous landlord Hank (Keanu Reeves) and surrounded by the seductive Ruby (Jena Malone), Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), a pack of shallow, jealous, beauty-obsessed women. It’s hard to evaluate the performances since most consist of nothing more than striking and holding a pose or staring longingly into a mirror, but I do think that Reeves has one of the greatest (if small) roles of his career.
There’s no escaping the true debate this movie presents: is this a shrewd feminist manifesto or is it grossly misogynistic? It’s taken me three days to reflect on this and I’ve decided that it sways towards the former rather than the latter.
First, the film celebrates the female form; the women in the film are beautiful set dressings, designed to be admired (and not treated solely as sexual objects). Yes, the women are one-dimensional but at the same time, that works as a harsh criticism of the narcissism that’s so prevalent in the fashion industry. Refn also artfully expresses the malice that is sometimes deeply hidden in the female psyche. The film is insightful too: women have a dark side and sometimes we do feel like we are in a girl-eat-girl world (a phrase that the film takes a bit too literally).
Refn’s hypnotic signature is all over this stylish, elegantly violent film. Cinematographer Natasha Braier adds a disturbing hallucinatory effect while Cliff Martinez lends a thumping, ear-splitting, ominous score that reflects the overall atmosphere of insanity.
As with the director’s other films (“Drive,” “Only God Forgives“), there are plenty of scenarios that seem to be present with the sole intent to shock, offend or disgust. (Do we really need an extended scene of lesbian necrophilia? I guess you can argue the point, but the scene goes on a bit too long to make it seem relevant to the plot or characters). The extreme last act feels more like a pointless gross-out than a thoughtful commentary think piece. I think this is a good place to mention that this film is a very, very hard ‘R’ rating; I am surprised it’s not NC-17.
“The Neon Demon” isn’t your run-of-the-mill art house film; it’s so far beyond the art house that it’s in another dimension.
A teenage runaway from Sandusky, Ohio steps off a bus into the glittering lights of Hollywood. All of her friends back home tell her that she’s destined to be a star, and she believes them. But Hollywood does not bestow fame and fortune without a price. First it will take her innocence, then it will take all that remains.
So is the story of “The Neon Demon,” the new film by auteur Nicolas Winding Refn (“Drive,” “Only God Forgives”). Elle Fanning is Jesse, the underage runaway that has been lured to Los Angeles by the whispered promises of becoming a famous model. She meets up with another innocent who was been lured to the city: photographer Dean (Karl Glusman), whose attempts at emulating the art he sees in Hollywood through pictures are met with sneering ridicule as “amateurish.” Dean hasn’t sold his soul, and those who have have nothing but contempt for him.
Jesse, on the other hand, makes the bargain readily: after being paraded before harshly appraising eyes and being judged a piece of meat worthy of notice, she willingly trades her virtue for empty glamour and attention. After having reborn on the runway, Jesse quickly learns that she has still not given enough: people continue to want more from her, and what they want she isn’t willing to give.
“The Neon Demon” is not for everyone. It’s not even for most. Even if you enjoyed “Drive,” you may find yourself frustrated and your patience tried by this movie. There is much to appreciate, but you will be challenged in doing so. In this film, Winding Refn has made an art piece that must be assessed, considered, and deconstructed. Those who are literal-minded will likely find their patience tried: the story isn’t about what’s happening on the surface, it’s about what’s happening underneath. You must watch, listen, and observe carefully.
One additional word of warning: “The Neon Demon” is highly disturbing and will upset many casual viewers. Apart from its gore and physical violence, the film pushes boundaries HARD. Terrible things are either shown or implied. I can’t for the life of me understand why the studio and theater chains thought that this was an appropriate film to release in nearly 800 theaters nationwide. One can imagine that of the few audience members who didn’t walk out during the first 20 minutes ran for the exits at its offscreen implication of child abuse.
If you’re still reading this review and haven’t been dissuaded yet, I recommend that you see this movie. It’s one of the most interesting discussion pieces in recent memory and it’s not one that I will soon forget.