June 24, 2016
Nicolas Winding Refn
Nicolas Winding Refn
At times, watching The Neon Demon feels more like taking a virtual tour of a museum than experiencing a film; much of the story is told in extended shots meant to be absorbed like photographs or paintings. How someone interprets these images depends a lot on the individual, where a person’s eyes linger, and how these pieces add up to a larger whole. In this museum metaphor, writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn is more of a curator than a filmmaker, creating a unified experience based on carefully chosen themes in order to create an all-encompassing mood. In fact, Refn has constructed The Neon Demon with all of the attention to detail one expects from a master artisan; everything about the film is absolutely intentional, from the overarching aesthetic to the slightest bush-stroke. Every shot is perfectly framed, every word integral, and every movement carries a cornucopia of subtext.
The only problem with the above description is that many horror fans would rather see a movie than stroll through a museum. This subset craves action, gore, and excitement presented in a traditional, linear narrative where important themes are explicitly stated through dialog-driven storytelling. The Neon Demon’s just not that type of ride; there isn’t even virtual tour guide explaining the importance of each component through ear-buds. Refn’s film may only appeal to aficionados with serious arthouse inclinations and, as is often the case with the most creative and intelligent offerings of our beloved genre, those with the narrowest definitions of “horror” will be the most disappointed.
Official Synopsis: Jesse (Elle Fanning) moves to Los Angeles just after her 16th birthday to launch a career as a model. The head of her agency tells the innocent teen that she has the qualities to become a top star. Jesse soon faces the wrath of ruthless vixens who despise her fresh-faced beauty. On top of that, she must contend with a seedy motel manager and a creepy photographer. As Jesse starts to take the fashion world by storm, her personality changes in ways that could help her against her cutthroat rivals.
Neon is a colorful world; it’s impossible to even read it without getting flashes of glowing signs illuminated by the volatile gas. Neon is the color palate of the entire film; a viewer is immersed into a universe reminiscent of the works of Patrick Nagle, the artist who created the archetypal portrait that graces the cover of Duran Duran’s Rio album. The hues mesh perfectly with the music, which is both modern and retro with throbbing beats and New Wave synthesizers. As a whole, The Neon Demon defies easy categorization, existing in a dimension both classic and unique, almost as if human evolution ended in the 1980’s.
The Neon Demon will undoubtedly draw comparisons to the work of David Lynch. And while I suspect Refn is a studied devotee, there are at least as many differences as there are similarities. Refn succeeds in telling stories through imagery that’s sometimes confusing but always hypnotic. Both filmmakers also excel in utilizing Los Angeles, aesthetically and thematically, to the point where the city becomes more of a character than a setting. But The Neon Demon remains primarily rooted in a world of macabre beauty without every swinging the pendulum into truly twisted realms. The films of David Lynch, on the other hand, are as discordant as they are harmonious, creating palpable sensations of dread and suspense that Refn’s film never quite achieves.
The Neon Demon is an experience that can’t be rushed; at 1 hour and 47 minutes, it requires a certain amount of commitment from its viewers. But it isn’t what most fans would consider “slow burn” as the film never builds into a climatic, shocking crescendo genre fans crave. You won’t find any jump-scares here and the moments of gore are fleeting and, for the most part, less alarming than an episode of Law & Order. Horror exists, but one must dig through layers of subtext to unearth it. While I found the entire trip enthralling, many won’t have the stamina or, frankly, the desire to explore the film’s depths. If you don’t find yourself loving the experience after the first 15 minutes, chances are you simply won’t connect. In other words, there’s nothing big or terrifying waiting for you 90 minutes down the line.
The Neon Demon reminds me quite a bit of another recent horror offering with significant arthouse leanings: 2014’s Starry Eyes was similarly bizarre in terms of presentation and storytelling, and both films focus on a female protagonist willing to go to dangerous extremes to achieve success in Hollywood. But whereas Starry Eyes delivers visceral thrills like gut punches, The Neon Demon is more of an hallucinatory out of body experience, similar in look and feel to Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void (2009). The Neon Demon has already struck a chord with many fringe horror fans, but it definitely falls under the intimidating umbrella of “Experimental Filmmaking”, a label that both excites and repulses. It simply isn’t a movie for everyone.
While Elle Fanning is consistently excellent as Jesse, a 16-year-old aspiring model whose deer-in-the-headlights exterior disguises a Machiavellian mindset, Jena Malone is the film’s surprise standout. As Ruby, a make-up artist deeply entrenched in the fashion industry’s machinery, Malone is complex and compelling. At times matronly, at times predatory, the audience is constantly questioning her true intensions. While it certainly would have been a different film altogether, The Neon Demon may have been equally compelling had it been told entirely from Ruby’s point-of-view. It’s great to see Malone knocking it out of the park, and I sincerely hope she’ll make a name for herself as a gifted actress—more than simply Donnie Darko’s girlfriend.
While the film is overflowing with shady characters, we’re never explicitly told who the titular Neon Demon is. It could be Jesse (Fanning), who hides behind a veneer of innocents. It could be Ruby (Malone), a two-faced fair-weather friend with dangerous designs. It could be Hank (played by Keanu Reeves), the manager of a hotel (prominently adorned in neon) who preys upon his charges, or any number of aspiring starlets willing to devour each other for a shot at fame. Then again, The Neon Demon could be something altogether different, a personification of cut-throat aspirations and a willingness to abandon humanity in the name of wealth and vanity, a fiend that sparkles like a beacon in the darkness only to lure potential victims to slaughter.
Fans of surrealist imagery and storytelling are in for a treat with The Neon Demon; it’s also bound to spark intense discussion about female sexuality and the commoditization of beauty. But this isn’t a slasher or a creature feature, or even psychological horror in a traditional sense. Those open to the experience will find a subtle yet infinitely complicated level of terror, like a dream forever on the verge of descending into an epic nightmare.