Cast: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Abbey Lee, Bella Heathcote, Karl Glusman, Keanu Reeves, Christina Hendricks
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Nicolas Winding Refn, the Danish filmmaker who let actor Tom Hardy run wild in the formally stylish Bronson, stoked dream-fetishes in Drive, and stunningly photographed ritualistic violence with the unfairly maligned Only God Forgives, is in complete control of his craft with his latest feature, The Neon Demon. Even putting the word “neon” in his film’s title, though, seems to be a self-reflexive in-joke (this is a guy who shoots almost entirely in primary colors), and yet, Refn isn’t someone who usually dives into the comedy pool. He’s much too enamored with carefully composed images, immaculate set design, and genre pleasures to be bothered with making something entertaining in the traditional sense.
This is not to say that there isn’t a kind of lurid entertainment value to be found throughout The Neon Demon. In fact, Refn is in full-on wanking mode here; giving us a movie wholly obsessed with itself in much the same way it’s characters are obsessed with themselves, where the vapid self-regard inherent in the L.A. fashion industry extends to the self-regarding style of filmmaking on display. Of course, underneath the evocative surface sheen lies an evil presence—like a demon, a mountain lion, or a creepy bald photographer lathering up a 16-year-old aspiring model with gold paint, and like all of Refn’s work, The Neon Demon works best as a visual and auditory experience. There’s a narrative, but it functions mainly to highlight a series of breathtakingly constructed sequences mixing dread, sex, fashion model posturing, and violence. There’s also a typically synth-laden score from Cliff Martinez (who also scored Drive and Only God Forgives) which pulsates loudly through nearly every scene, acting almost like Refn’s assistant director.
The plot here revolves around a naive ingenue named Jesse (Elle Fanning) making her way, like so many deluded kids with big dreams, to Los Angeles in order to pursue a modeling career. She’s only 16, but must pretend to be 19 because, as Christina Hendricks’s modeling agency rep explains, “18 is too on the nose.” Possessing that rare mixture of natural beauty and beguiling innocence, Jesse begins booking gigs effortlessly and causing quite the stir among the fashion industry elite. There’s a makeup artist, Ruby (Jena Malone), who instantly befriends her, acting almost as a guardian angel amidst the den of circling vultures in the form of models Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), both of whom project a mixture of jealousy and self-hatred. A possible love interest shows up (Karl Glusman, stiff as a board), as well as a sleazy motel owner (Keanu Reeves, playing against type with nominal success), but mostly, these are simply characters used as archetypal chess pieces to be shifted around at Refn’s whim.
Suffice to say, The Neon Demon is simplistic plot-wise, charting the age-old tale of innocence being swallowed whole by an industry trafficking in vile beauty standards for women. The director’s output, however, has never really been interested in plot or character development. Refn thrives on pushing buttons and in some senses, pranking the audience by setting up one kind of movie only to deliver something else entirely. The thing about Drive and Only God Forgives is that they were all style and no substance in the best ways possible, with very little spoken dialogue and a discernible lack of an overarching message. The problem with The Neon Demon is that it thinks it’s about something and for all of Refn’s stylistic insinuations, that something isn’t all that compelling. Depicting the monstrous horrors of perfected beauty by showing Fanning’s “It Girl” as everything women want a piece of—both metaphorically and literally—is reductive, and there’s something misguided about decrying the objectification of women by essentially turning the female characters into objects that can be moved around the garishly photographed sets like props. But again, that’s the point, right?
Despite the bone-headed screenplay by Refn, Mary Laws, and Polly Stenham, Fanning is such a natural screen presence that she actually elevates the stilted dialogue and inherent artificiality of the script into something that feels believable. Beneath the elaborate costumes and runway makeup, Fanning finds the nuances of a teenage girl navigating conflicting psychological and emotional terrain, and in turn, delivers a performance which breathes outside the midnight movie pulp conventions Refn is toying with. Probably the film’s most intriguing idea is that Jesse, for all her social awkwardness and supposed innocence, is in fact just as narcissistic as those who would like to possess her beauty or better yet, take it all away from her. However, this thread, though compelling in terms of Fanning’s hypnotic performance is, (pardon the pun) only skin deep. Refn mines the cinematic well here; taking bits of Kubrick’s cold detachment, David Lynch’s strangeness, and Brian DePalma’s luridness, but it’s all a tease, really. The movie is only ever interested in being a movie; one that dovetails into the kind of depraved 80s/90’s exploitation fodder one might expect from Refn, but then again, it also thinks it has something important on it’s mind, which doesn’t help.
The Neon Demon could have been a savage satire or a deranged thriller or a Dario Argento-inspired Giallo splatter-fest (well, there’s a bit of the latter during the film’s final 20 minutes), but it instead settles for a slow-drip mood piece which so happens to feature a fairly conventional story. There are hints of black comedy here, and times where Refn is clearly going for a dark fairytale vibe--Martinez’s score often pushes this along by adding twinkly analog keyboard washes which accentuate the 80s-style softcore lighting--but for the most part, it seems as if Refn wants us to take all of this nonsense seriously. For all it’s provocative visuals and admirable willingness to buck convention, the film nonetheless feels like it could have gone even further, been even stranger, and ditched some of the faux-high brow philosophizing about the nature of physical beauty for something more enjoyably trashy.