The Neon Demon (2016) dir. Nicolas Winding Refn.
Written: Mary Laws, Nicolas Winding Refn, and Polly Stenham.
Starring: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, and Abbey Lee.
CWs: Eye injury, cannibalism, abuse, prolonged nudity, rape, CSA, necrophilia.
In the world of Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, being beautiful means being prey to lecherous men and obsessive women. Beauty makes you the target of either violent lust, violent jealousy, or both at once. If you’re beautiful, you may be “dangerous” like the lead character Jesse (Elle Fanning) coolly asserts in a melodramatic speech, but that danger is a two-way street that forms the crux of Refn’s grotesque foray into horror.
Fanning’s Jesse is a sixteen year old aspiring model who at the onset of the film is being photographed by her friend Dean (Karl Glusman). After making friends with Ruby, a make-up artist (Jena Malone), she gets signed into a modeling agency where she quickly shows up the bitterly envious models Sarah and Gigi (Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote). Jesse, evidently, has “it.” What “it” is is never explained, but “it” is what makes her so irresistibly beautiful, like the sun in winter, as one character puts it. However, As Jesse’s modeling career progresses, her beauty becomes a horrible magnet for danger and depravity. Refn has boasted that The Neon Demon was filmed in chronological order and numerous scenes were bolstered by improvisation, including the gut-wrenching finale which was allegedly made up on the spot entirely. “Gut-wrenching” does not necessarily imply “satisfying,” however, as it seems too concrete to be open-ended but too ambiguous and sudden to be conclusive. It’s not a bad ending, but its food for thought feels force-fed, not to mention overcooked.
As a whole, the film is like a “dark ride” at a theme park or carnivals. It’s loud and exciting, disorienting and overstimulating, exhausting by the end, and certainly not for everyone. Anyone familiar with Refn’s films may know that he has a particularly intense approach to what he likes to show on screen, but there is one scene in particular that has garnered boos at film festivals and waves of walk-outs in theaters (including mine). I’ll be blunt: if shameless necrophilia is a deal breaker for you, save yourself the trouble and just go watch The Conjuring 2 again. While we’re at it, anyone with epilepsy or who is otherwise averse to rapid flashing lights would do well to sit this one out, too.
When the film isn’t overloading your eyes and ears or offending your sensibilities, it trades frenzied loudness for moody pensiveness. Given how extreme the movie can be, the quieter and calmer moments in which nothing is happening reek with potential energy. The cinematography is stellar, tantalizing viewers with shots that are anxiously unbalanced or stunningly framed. Mirrors and other reflective surfaces are abused with great finesse, but only to drive home a heavy-handed point, and nudity is embraced just as much as it’s exploited. The film reminds me of a quote by John Berger about women in male-produced art: “You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting ‘Vanity,’ thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.”
For playing a character who supposedly has “it,” Elle Fanning seems to be no more or less conventionally attractive than her co-stars who play the vindictive models out to get her. As a result, the way that Jesse is presented – including all of the numerous long, lingering takes on the actress – strongly nudges viewers to objectify and idolize the then-sixteen-year old Fanning in the same way that the film’s predators do. By projecting unprecedented esteem to her beauty, The Neon Demon forces you to consider, if this character is evidently the end-all be-all of attractiveness, do you find her attractive? Reiterating that both the character and the actress (during production) are sixteen years old, it’s a disgusting question that Refn relishes to ask during what could be called a gruesome send-up of toxic femininity
It may be easy to disregard the film as a self-indulgent drag race fueled by the male gaze, but it’s worth noting that The Neon Demon was written by Refn with two women, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, and its aforementioned cinematography is courtesy of Natasha Braier, who provides another key feminine perspective behind the camera. However, as a review from Vox explains, the film’s attempt to portray the modeling and fashion industry as a den of monstrous women is troublingly tone-deaf, and (neon) demonizing the industry’s women, intentionally or not, seems to divert blame from the men who, in a dirty little secret, overwhelmingly run the show. Furthermore, The Neon Demon is disappointingly the latest in the long, long list of movies that vilifies LGBTQA+ individuals as depraved.
Coasting on concepts of consumption and transformation, The Neon Demon is very subtly a vampire story of sorts, and there is a very obvious “bite” about a third through the film or so, which marks Jesse’s gradual transformation from a small town girl to a “dangerous” beauty. Thematically, it’s intriguing, but like so many of this movie’s more interesting elements I can’t help but feel dissatisfied. The whole movie is dissatisfying. Beyond the spectacle and “Baywatch Nights fever dream” aesthetic, The Neon Demon doesn’t have too much to offer. There are some standout performances – Abbey Lee’s balance of stuck-up cruelty and paranoia is great, Bella Heathcote is perfectly plastic, Keanu Reeves plays a spectacular scumbag, and the fantastic Christina Hendricks is tragically underutilized – but the acting takes a backseat to the glitz and glam that smothers the film like a thick, glittery syrup. I think that’s a very apt metaphor, syrup, because I am one hundred percent certain that if I could somehow touch the raw essence of this film, it’d be very uncomfortably sticky.
Sleaze aside, one thing that surprised me was how darkly humorous the movie was. Occasional quips come out lightning-fast and there’s a fairly early scene that makes absolutely no sense at first glance, but as I realized the next day, actually contains a visual gag so stupidly literal that it works (see The Stinger below for the spoil). But do not be fooled: The Neon Demon is not a comedy. It’s a miserable trance, so strikingly and deliberately composed so as to make such horrible things appear as inexplicably alluring as possible. Violence – occasionally of a sexual nature – is cast in haunting tints and silhouettes. Much like the monstrous models of the film in their extravagant dresses, bold lighting and a captivating color palette beautifully dress up scenes of cruelty, brutality, and bloodshed. As revolting as The Neon Demon gets, it’s equal parts transgressive and transfixing. You won’t be able to look away.
A beautiful and heartless film about beautiful and heartless people, The Neon Demon is a perfect example of the medium being the message. It’s visually stunning, but brutally unpleasant, like being waterboarded by glow stick goo. This film is, in a word, “cool.” Not necessarily good, but very “cool.” Fans of Nicolas Winding Refn may consider it his best film yet, as it’s definitely a masterpiece as far as his signature style goes, but for the layman, it may be nothing but a sweet laser light show that gets rudely interrupted by necrophilia about three-fourths through. Two stars out of five.
When writing a review, I avoid describing the whole film scene by scene. To that end, that means that there are sometimes stray observations, specific reactions, and noted reflections that just can’t make it into the review proper, for the sake of either efficiency or so as not to spoil it. That said, a spoiler alert is in full effect for the various hot takes listed below…
- That visual gag I mentioned earlier: after getting signed to the modeling agency, Jesse returns to her motel room only to discover that it’s been infiltrated and ransacked by a mountain lion. It comes out of absolutely nowhere but it’s implied that the creature was sicced on Jesse by the models (the stuffed jungle cats in Ruby’s house can’t be a coincidence). When I finally remembered the other name for the animal, I finally realized that Jesse is being preyed upon by cougars, i.e. older women. Ha…?
- When one considers what qualitatively separates the character of Jesse from her colleagues, “it” is helplessness, loneliness, powerlessness, vulnerability, virginity, and being sixteen years old. If that’s what makes her so irresistible in this world, it makes me shudder.
- Or maybe when they say Jesse has It, they’re all just really impressed with her Stephen King collection.
- Although he says his first lines obscured on the other side of the door, it tickles me that the first word Keanu Reeves says once you can recognize him is “woah.”
- This film seems to fluctuate between being abstract and artsy (like Jesse’s first time in a fashion show) and beating the symbolism over your head with a hammer. Look! Ruby does make-up on lifeless bodies…and on corpses! Get it! Because the models are dead inside! Hey, remember Elizabeth Bathory? Bet you do now!
- The character of Dean is presented as so kind-hearted compared to the rest of the film’s male cast that you almost forget that he appears to be consciously grooming a sixteen-year old girl. He recoils upon finding out her age, but he doesn’t leave and certainly doesn’t let up on the romantic gestures, but whether he’s sticking around to protect her or because he expects a reward is very deliberately left unclear.
- After Jesse tells a clunky story about how the moon is a symbol for an eye, the movie treats the viewer to occasional shots of the moon “watching” the brutality of the film unfold. Is it a metaphor for how the world itself is just watching idly while the modeling industry continues to abuse and exploit its recruits? Probably. Did Refn read The Great Gatsby and think that the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg was a cool motif? Almost certainly.