The Neon Demon is a stylishly surreal, but hollow, horror/thriller – and another Nicolas Winding Refn film bound to divide audiences.
The Neon Demon stars Elle Fanning as Jesse, a teenager who moves out to Los Angeles in pursuit of a modeling career. There, Jesse is befriended by a makeup artist named Ruby (Jena Malone), who introduces her to a pair of more experienced models – Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote) – and helps her to adjust to life in L.A. and the city’s eclectic culture. While Jesse’s competitors at first admire her looks but regard her as little more than yet another small-town girl with big dreams, Jesse is quickly picked up by a modeling agency rep (Christina Hendricks) who recognizes that she naturally has the sort of appearance that will appeal to men working in the modeling industry.
Sure enough, Jesse soon finds herself being fawned over by influential male photographers and fashion designers in a way that none of the other women around her are. As Jesse’s star rises and those around her begin seeing her as a threat (and become disturbingly obsessed with her), it becomes less and less clear whether Jessie truly is an innocent lamb now being preyed upon by wolves or a wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing… and just how much real bloodlust there is among those who live in the City of Angels.
Polarizing films are nothing new for Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn (The Pusher trilogy, Valhalla Rising, Drive), so it’s not surprising that The Neon Demon – which Refn co-wrote in addition to directing – split audiences during its tour on the film festival circuit (especially the Cannes Film Festival) prior to its wider theatrical release. Its controversial general reception aside, though, Neon Demon is not Refn’s weakest directorial effort to date – but, is it not his best film, either. What makes Neon Demon an interesting addition to Refn’s filmography is that it explores the dark side of women (not men, like in Refn’s previous work) – and how that darkness stems from cultural attitudes about the value of their appearances and “beauty”, through a series of horror and psycho-thriller tropes.
From its very first shot, The Neon Demon examines the fetishization of violent imagery featuring women in popular forms of media – a theme the movie further examines through the model industry in particular, where ordinary photo sessions play out like crime scenes and photographers come off as unfeeling voyeurs who (as the models put it) “shoot” their co-workers for a living. Neon Demon presents an intriguing vision of the L.A. model sub-culture that is shaped by misogyny, narcissism, and kill-or-be-killed attitudes at every turn, via a narrative that (likes those in most Refn films) unfolds as a waking dream – that is, one that at first seems to be about actual people in the real world, but where everything gradually appears to take place in a (darkly comical) nightmare. If Drive is Refn’s homage to, say, Steve McQueen action/thrillers, then Neon Demon is the director’s flashy pastiche of dark showbiz stories in the vein of Valley of the Dolls – with more than a few nods to supernatural horror films (some classics, some camp classics) that are best left unspoiled ahead of time.
However, Neon Demon doesn’t deconstruct the modeling world so much as it presents a troubling vision of it in Refn’s trademark filmmaking style – one that walks the line between high art and stylized, yet pulpy exploitation. Refn and cinematographer Natasha Braier (The Rover) create a handful of striking, if heavy-handed, visual motifs throughout the film – notably that of characters admiring themselves in mirrors – but even the film’s more abstract imagery doesn’t offer much insight into either the world or characters that are featured here, beyond what’s apparent at first glance. As impressive as Neon Demon is in terms of craftsmanship, from the meticulous camerawork to the moody electronica score from composer Cliff Martinez (who previously collaborated with Refn on Drive and Only God Forgives), there’s not much going on below the surface.
Similarly, the actual narrative through-line for Neon Demon – which Refn co-wrote with Mary Laws and Polly Stenham – is secondary to the film’s sense of atmosphere and moments of on-the-nose symbolism. The movie’s characters are closer to being walking metaphors themselves rather than fully-developed individuals or even archetypes – still, Neon Demon‘s story takes enough unnerving twists and turns to maintain a sense of suspense around just what any one character may do next, or just how far they’re willing to go to get what they desire. Although the people in Neon Demon speak with even more deliberate pauses and less inflection than they have in Refn films past, the performances from leads Elle Fanning (Maleficent), Jena Malone (The Hunger Games), Bella Heathcote (Dark Shadows), and Abbey Lee (Mad Max: Fury Road) likewise help infuse their respective characters with sparks of humanity – both good and bad.
There are a handful of well-established character actors who show up in Neon Demon too. That includes Mad Men alum Christina Hendricks (who also collaborated with Refn before on Drive) as a cynically-pragmatic modeling agency representative, as well as Alessandro Nivola (American Hustle) as a vain fashion designer, and Dexter alum Desmond Harrington as (fittingly enough) an unsettlingly impersonal, yet celebrated, photographer. However, the scene-stealing member of Neon Demon‘s secondary cast is easily Keanu Reeves as Hank, the gleefully unscrupulous (and immoral) manager of the motel where Jesse stays. The supporting cast in Neon Demon do fine work with what they are given, but like the film’s leads they are playing characters who represent specific ideas – as opposed to being fully-developed people.
The Neon Demon is a stylishly surreal, but hollow, horror/thriller – and another Nicolas Winding Refn film bound to divide audiences. Where some will find deeper layers of meaning and symbolism in its narrative, others will feel Neon Demon has little on its mind beyond what is obvious on the surface. With respect to Refn’s recent work, Neon Demon is (arguably) a more cohesive arthouse filmmaking exercise than Only God Forgives, but isn’t as soundly built as Drive – nor does it blend poetic stylistic flourishes with narrative substance as well. Filmgoers who are looking for something in between the “extremes” of Refn’s last two movies may want to check Neon Demon out – but if you’ve never been a fan of the filmmaker’s output to date, this one probably won’t change your mind either.
The Neon Demon is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 117 minutes long and is Rated R for disturbing violent content, bloody images, graphic nudity, a scene of aberrant sexuality, and language.
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