THE NEON DEMON
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cast: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Karl Glusman, Desmond Harrington, Alessandro Nivola, Keanu Reeves, Christina Hendricks
MPAA Rating: (for disturbing violent content, bloody images, graphic nudity, a scene of aberrant sexuality, and language)
Running Time: 1:57
Release Date: 6/24/16
Review by Mark Dujsik | June 23, 2016
The Neon Demon is a thoroughly ugly, deeply cynical movie about the world of modeling and the cost of fame. It's a fable of sorts that's woefully obvious in its point, and that's just when the characters are only pulling out metaphorical knives on and figuratively eating each other. Since this is a movie by director Nicolas Winding Refn, who clearly enjoys finding new ways to torture and maim and kill characters in his movies, it's only a matter of time before the abstract violence becomes literal.
The movie doesn't need to go that far, of course, but going that far is Refn's point. It's a movie about extremes, in which every character begins in a fairly recognizable place before almost all of them transform into the hideous, maladjusted embodiment of their worst qualities. Anyone who doesn't fit that mold is either dismissed or forced into an act of transformation. There's a lot of forcing going on in the screenplay by Refn, Mary Laws, and Polly Stenham.
There's also very little here about which to care. The movie's game is fairly transparent, even with the inclusion of a series of narrative distractions and acts of misdirection. The name of that game is Punishment—for whatever real or imagined transgressions the screenwriters decide are worth pretty stiff penalties. The movie arbitrarily doles out those penalties or lets off characters without any. If the point is that such things are unfair and undiscerning, that point becomes lost in the almost gleeful way in which Refn dispenses the punishment.
Sixteen-year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning) has come to Los Angeles to pursue a career in modelling after the deaths of her parents. She doesn't believe she has any "real" talent. Jesse, though, knows she is beautiful, and she also knows she can make money off of that fact. A local amateur photographer named Dean (Karl Glusman), whom she met online, takes a few (obviously foreshadowing) pictures to set Jesse up with a portfolio to show potential employers.
The story follows Jesse's quick rise in the industry—gaining a high-profile agent (Christina Hendricks) on her first interview, getting her first professional gig with one of the business' leading photographers (Desmond Harrington), and having a famous fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola) set her up to close his latest show. She meets a new friend named Ruby (Jena Malone), a makeup artist, who introduces Jesse to some of her competition at a party. Gigi (Bella Heathcoate), who frequents a local plastic surgeon to "improve" her look, is instantly jealous of the newcomer, and Sarah (Abbey Lee) develops that attitude after the designer chooses Jesse over her.
Depending on who's doing the looking, Jesse is an object either of envious scorn or of lustful desire. Dean is somewhat an exception on the first end of the spectrum, as he proceeds with a relatively chaste process of wooing her (making the character useless at a certain point, in light of the movie's grand scheme). From there, the intensity increases with each character whom she meets. The professional photographer orders Jesse to strip naked for his shoot before rubbing gold paint on her body. The fashion designer lets out audible gasps of yearning and sighs of almost orgasmic satisfaction just from looking at her. Meanwhile, the manager (Keanu Reeves) of the motel where she stays has other, criminal things on his mind.
The most important question is where Refn falls on that spectrum. Depending on where the movie is on either end of a key moment, he treats her with either pandering sympathy—emphasizing that she's an inexperienced ingénue who might be too trusting of other people's motivations—or brutal indignation.
The moment in question is the fashion show, which climaxes in a dream-like sequence of pure narcissism on Jesse's part, as she kisses her own reflections in a pair of mirrors. One of those pieces of misdirection, by the way, is how the character seems to be clairvoyant about this moment, as well as a violent assault that she avoids—without making any effort to prevent another, unseen woman from becoming a victim. In Refn's mind, it seems, someone has to be the victim, whether or not it makes any sense.
From that point of narcissism on, Jesse becomes the worst of the bunch—at least until someone else can and does top her—and must be punished as such. The message is confused enough as it is, and it's further distorted by the feeling that the last act of The Neon Demon has little to do with giving this fable a moral. It's mostly about Refn going as far as possible—necrophilia, cannibalism, self-evisceration—simply because he wants to and can.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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