After premiering to divisive responses at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival where it played in competition (jeers were mixed with waves of derisive laughter along with some vibrant applause from staunch supporters), Amazon Studios opened its prolific property into US theaters about a month later, where the heavily marketed title made over a million at the box office in two weeks but was promptly yanked out of venues as, according to industry standards, it was a flop. Besides being an interesting case study in how not to properly market and release an independent film production in the US (and if it even matters for titles destined for simultaneous VOD release), Refn’s latest venture is an over-the-top arthouse neo-noir attempting to dissect the superficial monstrosities gilding the Los Angeles leg of the fashion industry.
To reference John Waters’ definition of beauty, “a face should jolt, not soothe,” and Danish provocateur Nicolas Winding Refn provides something along those lines with his latest effort, the divisive The Neon Demon, a film professing to be about ‘vicious beauty’ set amongst the superficial glitter of intrepid Los Angeles models. Much like the industry, and the metropolis within which this narrative unfurls, it’s an examination of superficiality, although one without a desired layer of actual subtext, attempting to terrorize with instances of Grand Guignol, which often feels adolescent when such shock values fail to seem perverse. Smirking at his critics who have long decried a rampant streak of misogyny threaded throughout his work, his latest is no less problematic, ushering forth a quartet of female vipers who are more or less equivalent villainous counterparts to the director’s wide ranging array of violent men. Femininity isn’t weakness when wielded as a powerful tool—weakness is simply weakness, and perhaps more evident than in any of his previous films, within the confines of this subculture, life is a one dimensional merry-go-round of survival of the fittest.
Jesse (Elle Fanning) is an aspiring model who has just moved to Los Angeles. Both her parents dead, the youngster holes up in a seedy Pasadena motel run by Hank (Keanu Reeves), and connects with a young photographer she meets online, the idealistic Dean (Karl Glusman), who introduces her to makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone). Beautiful and innocent, she is immediately signed by a formidable agency (run by Christina Hendricks) and grabs the attention of a famed photographer (Desmond Harrington) and fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola). Ruby also introduces her to more seasoned models Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), who immediately feel threatened by Jesse’s innocence and natural beauty. Eventually, jealousy and narcissism turn the tide against Jesse’s initial good luck, until she too is less like herself and more like them. She soon discovers the devouring nature of the incessantly hungry industry.
Arguably, The Neon Demon suffers from some of the same problems as widely regarded failure Only God Forgives, another scenario begging to be fleshed (not flayed) out beyond provocative set-pieces. Hiding behind the vapid climes of the fashion industry isn’t an excuse enough for the underwhelming narrative design which visually evokes a cavalcade of classic giallo titles, not to mention Refn’s other heralded inspiration, Alejandro Jodorowsky (who is thanked in the final credits). Still, he proves to be a master of provocatively detailed space, the most terrorizing moments realized in free-floating, stunningly imagined set-pieces such as an early moment filmed in Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel (as a side note, several of the Los Angeles locales are used seductively, including a brief exchange in Echo Park’s Alexander’s Brite Spot diner).
Cliff Martinez provides a commanding score, filled with pulsing bass and electronic menace, while tracks from Sia and Diplo round out aural delights. Likewise, DP Natasha Breier assists with arresting frames, including two particularly phenomenal sequences (dialogue aside) with Desmond Harrington’s photographer and an early moment with a burglarizing panther, a metaphor for the world about to devour ingénue Jesse.
With all these pluses, it would seem The Neon Demon, perhaps an allusion to the eternal green monster jealousy, announces something of a comeback for Refn. But there’s something much too underwhelming about all of this, a film which begs for the overcomplicated, zany, illogical formulations of giallo titles, or the pulpy era of Brian De Palma (can you imagine what he would have done with a gaggle of hungry models inheriting the powers of their fellow comrades they devour). Taking too long to establish a rapport between Fanning (at her usual willowy pitch) and Glusman’s ineffective male suitor (a simplistic role reversal of gender norms), Demon kicks into high gear without warning but seems to miss a significant transition.
Jena Malone (who gives, by far, the most enjoyable performance) is a problematically realized lesbian character, presented in a similar hoary mode as something like the exploitative predator portrayed by Coral Browne in Robert Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George (1968). It would seem, lesbians, accordingly, are also agents of exploitation because they desire women—and female beauty, no matter from where comes the gaze, is bound to be subjected to the desires of the observer, fated to eternal objectification.
After an attempted rape of Jesse, Malone’s scorned Ruby (who owns two of the film’s best visual gags) toddles off to the morgue to gruesomely molest a post-autopsy corpse before rounding up her gals to cannibalize Jesse. As justification, Jesse is suddenly and ridiculously a narcissistic vamp. “You want to know what my mother used to call me?” she begs. “Dangerous.” The transition begs the question, how long do you retain a semblance of innocence or objectivity before you inadvertently assimilate into the very culture one believes they’re better than?
Though it begins in a tone resembling something like Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls (1995), Refn’s The Neon Demon eventually seems to stumble over its own self-awareness, fluctuating between moments necessitating exaggeration or victim of their own uncomfortable excess (like a finale which seems so gleeful to unveil its grotesque carnage it negates whatever provocative tension the film had previously formulated).
Sure to be as equally reviled as it is passionately championed, whatever side of the divide you land on, it manages to be a convincing conversation starter, though it’s hard not to imagine what The Neon Demon could have been had Refn actually desired to be subversive. As it stands, the fashion industry is too easy a vacuous target to be impaled by something as obvious as a self-devouring motif. In the eternal words of Gina Gershon’s Cristal Connors character, “There’s always someone younger and hungrier coming down the stairs after you,” and Refn’s acolytes may eventually usurp his scope should he continue with devices as oversimplified as these.
Amazon and Broadgreen Pictures deliver Refn’s latest hollow scream in widescreen 2.40:1 with 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio (significantly enhancing the film’s best element in the ambient soundtrack). Picture and sound quality remain persuasively intact in the transfer. Refn is on hand for optional commentary, along with Elle Fanning. Additionally, other bonus features are also included.
Behind the Soundtrack of The Neon Demon:
Refn and Cliff Martinez appear in this five minute segment about the creation of the film’s soundtrack.
About The Neon Demon:
This brief one minute segment includes snippets from the cast about the film’s intentions.
More hysterical than hypnotic, The Neon Demon isn’t without certain merits (including a fantastic soundtrack from Cliff Martinez), but arguably could have been a much more potent and subversive portrait of modernized vanity, perilous standards of beauty, and the extreme narcissism dictating the limitations of human interaction. In other words, more subtext here could have gone a long way.
Film Review: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆