THE NEON DEMON Review

Though Nicolas Winding Refn is hardly a household name his films have come to feel like certain kinds of events. It is in the aura he has created around himself and his ambitions that his movies now feel like these mythic, untouchable experiences that take us into a usually weird and demented world that is largely metaphorical for the one the rest of us exist in. With what is his tenth feature film the director has made his first film with a female lead as he's chosen to explore his inner sixteen year-old girl. In his mind, if he were a girl that is, Refn would seem to want to exist in the world of high fashion and be a fashion model as The Neon Demon takes us through the age old tale of the young, pretty southern girl who travels to Los Angeles to make her dreams of becoming a star come true. This is an interesting choice as Refn adopts a rather straightforward narrative for this film while still remaining experimental through the visual design and the way he integrates interesting visual approaches to convey many of the tropes of such a story. Set in this world of supermodels, pretentious designers, and even more pretentious photographers everything about the film feels elitist-the world should belong to the beautiful. The substance matters little if the surface isn't beautiful enough to stop you in the first place. Ruled over by the few chosen gatekeepers of taste we willingly follow our protagonist despite knowing, that in Refn's hands, there is no way this ends well. What Refn is actually attempting to say (if anything) with the film is anyone's guess as it's clear he means for his works to elicit multiple interpretations, but given the more linear structure and straightforward fashion in which the film has been edited it would appear Refn wants us to believe he is discussing one thing while slyly delivering something else. These intentions don't really come forward until the third act though, when the sleight of hand turns into full on spectacle with the film simultaneously becoming less effective as a result. The slow paced, meditative quality of the first two acts that analyzes the ins and outs of the modeling and fashion industries through the innocent eyes of sixteen year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning) is abruptly disposed of in favor of slasher movie conventions thus making the strong build-up and examination of such a world feel short-changed by the abrupt action that concludes the film. Refn somehow still manages slight poignancy, but with not as unique a perception as he initially sets up.

Jesse (Elle Fanning) is brought flowers by new suitor Dean (Karl Glusman).
At the onset of The Neon Demon we are treated to an exquisitely framed and beautifully made-up Fanning as her body is draped across a couch, throat cut with blood perfectly streaming down her arm and onto the furniture. The image is striking, gorgeous, and haunting all at the same time, but we're later cut down to size for thinking as much as Refn is keen to keep even the audiences superiority in check. We know this image and set-up must be part of a photo shoot, but does it indicate more? What are we to take from this image Refn holds on? What do we expect? What is real? The questions, from a single image, are stacking up with Refn then pulling his camera back to indeed reveal Jesse is in make-up and on a set. The photographer, Dean (Karl Glusman), who will come to serve as something of a boyfriend and bodyguard (not to mention moral compass for the film) to Jesse stares intently over his camera hinting at the effect Jesse will continue to have on people as she makes her way up the fashion ladder. Through these initial photos Jesse signs with an agency headed by Christina Hendricks. Jesse then makes friends with make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone) who, like Dean, also seems to immediately understand that this girl from Georgia who has lost her parents and has no one and nothing to guide her has that something special that all stars need. Ruby invites Jesse to tag along to a party where she introduces the new girl in town to two seasoned models in Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee). Gigi is the type of girl who says things like, "God, I love this color on me," when discussing lipsticks and has no shame in admitting that much of her beauty is manufactured. Her intended edginess by virtue of her even more manufactured candor is offset by Sarah whose directness feels more natural. Sarah lays it all out the moment we meet her-telling or rather forewarning Jesse that they've already measured her up. How high can you climb? Sarah says, and is it higher than me? That's all anyone in this city is thinking when someone new walks onto the scene. And so, as Jesse begins to book shoots with well-renowned photographers like Jack (Desmond Harrington) and runway shows with designers like those played by Alessandro Nivola tensions naturally rise.

What is both fascinating and somewhat distressing about Refn's work is that I'd like to think there is an overarching idea to the little asides and details the director includes, but some of the time it seems Refn is only executing and including certain scenes so as to capture a certain image or include something he, for lack of a better word, thinks is cool. We get scenes of a cougar breaking into Jesse's low-rent motel room (which feels odd for Refn to shoot when juxtaposed with his more slick, neon-lit art pieces) with the inclusion of Keanu Reeves as a shady motel manager offering little to no purpose other than to remind us that Los Angeles can be a seedy town and if you're not careful- it will devour you. This is demonstrated in a scene where Jesse books a gig over the more experienced Sarah with the culmination of that scene being Jesse getting cut on her hand by a piece of glass. There is most certainly some symbolism to be gained from this image, more so even than whatever the scene is actually saying through its dialogue, but there are no connective tissues to these events within the film that make them feel necessary. In other words, viewers can still garner the same meaning from the overall film without these visually striking moments, but because they have been executed in such visually striking ways we still have to sit through them. I'm not necessarily complaining given I don't mind looking at imaginative and engrossing visuals, but is an extended scene of Jena Malone's character fornicating with a corpse necessary to convey Ruby is sexually frustrated and willing to take dark turns if pushed? Those ideas and traits are certainly important to get across given the direction the film goes in, but the scene that most will discuss when talking about The Neon Demon feels more gratuitous than it does necessary. Malone is a talented actor who can convey as much with a smirk. Even cutting the scene a little earlier to leave the result up to the audiences imagination would have been more effective, but Refn isn't about subtlety and sometimes that need to over indulge in the aberrant distracts from the principal goal. Of course, I'm not here to offer suggestions on what might have made the film better but instead am here to comment on the film at hand-it is just that by spoiling himself in this visual splendor Refn seems to also rob his film of the full weight it could have carried.

Jesse comes from Georgia to Los Angeles to pursue a modeling career in The Neon Demon.
Though The Neon Demon ultimately serves to be more stimulating for its eye candy than its story there is still much to like or rather admire about the project. The first hour of the film is incredibly layered and assured as Refn, while giving his screenplay a driving force, more uses the familiar template of small town girl in a big city to explore that city and the industry of her choosing. It only makes sense that a stylish director like Refn would chose to set this film within the fashion industry and so it is from this perspective that we explore the big city. There is a very predatory nature to the tone. Every character is presented in a context where there is a consistent and heightened sense of danger. Though Dean turns out to be the least threatening of characters to our heroine he is originally set-up to be something of a hunter whereas Ruby is introduced as the closest thing Jesse will likely find to a friend in her new home. These transitions from expectations to reality are the most engrossing parts of the film. Wondering from the moment Ruby introduces Jesse to other key players if her role will expand or be explored further makes the fact that it does come to be vital both rewarding while continuing to heighten the mystery. Every aspect of Malone's character is largely kept a secret until the final forty or so minutes when we finally catch a better glimpse at her state of mind. Unfortunately, this is also where the film seems to lose itself. Just as each of the elements Refn and his script have set in motion up to this point feel like they're getting ready to pay off the momentum slows considerably as we take a detour to further explore the dynamic between Ruby and Jesse. As Jesse, Fanning is everything I imagine Refn wanted and needed her to be. She tilts her head, shifts her eyes, and widens her smile just enough and at just the right moments to help us understand what makes her stand out-why she is a diamond in a sea of glass. In an industry that plays on insecurities that Jesse's beauty is so obvious and natural due to the detail she likes the way she looks all the more captivating. Fanning nails this innocent facade while remaining tough and confident despite it. Devolving into a cyclical tale that goes from having a clear objective to wandering aimlessly-searching for whatever might provide the most shock value-The Neon Demon ultimately comes to a close too swiftly and with none of the tension, dread, or insight that makes so much of the movie hypnotizing.