Release: 31st October 2016
Format: BR / DVD / DGTL
The film follows 16-year-old aspiring model Jesse (Fanning) as she moves to Los Angeles to pursue her dream. Signed by Jan (Christina Hendricks)’s modelling agency, Jesse quickly finds herself working with some of the city’s top designers and photographers. But her innocence and youth make her a target of her fellow models, including Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), who it seems are willing to go to any lengths to possess Jesse’s X factor and to get revenge for the theft of their limelight.
The Neon Demon is a luxurious nightmare that swathes you with indulgent aesthetics and exotic sound, while ultimately serving its own ends. From its opening mash of beauty and horror, the film takes a long swim through a malodorous treacle lake of crimson red conceit to a destination that is ultimately as empty as its central quartet of models.
You might say that from Drive through Only God Forgives and now with The Neon Demon, that director Nicolas Winding Refn has crafted a luminescent trilogy of English language films which explore the contradictions of conventional Westernised gender archetypes in the sphere of synthetic urban space. The very word neon can mean gaudy or tawdry, and there is great contradiction in that Refn has come to build a cinematic sphere that uses neon light to create beautiful imagery and cool artistry in the darkest and ugliest regions of human existence and the human soul. That is all well a good, however, only when you have a top notch psychology behind your narrative. But as the director veers off into a geography of indulgence, and abandons any forms of conventional storytelling in favour of mood or hypothesis, then the end result can be a gamble. Filmmakers such as David Lynch, Gasper Noe, Nicolas Roeg do this often and with mixed results; for Refn, in this instance, the gamble has not paid off.
The biggest issue with The Neon Demon is that it seems to urge viewer disinterest. Characters flit in and out of conscious thought, while all the time inhabiting the same ethereal space with which Refn often deposits his protagonists in. Elle Fanning’s Jesse doesn’t seem to live in the fashion industry we might associate with say Kate Moss or Tom Ford (who is incessantly alluded to with the presence of Alessandro Nivola). Instead, she is unequivocally thrust into an out-and-out horror movie that has its head in the mythology of narcissus and its heart in the subversion of Christian ideology. Beyond this, The Neon Demon becomes a vignette of ‘fashion’ scenes stitching together a patchwork gambit of increasingly gross-out moments. The film has nothing to say about the fashion industry, and even less to say about why it is worth watching. Refn does his best to insert the illusion of meaning by slamming symbolism and metaphorical imagery throughout (watch as Jesse leaves herself “open” to danger, and then witness self appreciation on a very literal level), but it is obvious to even the most interested of viewers that there is little intent here on making something of substance.
Cliff Martinez is, as usual, a saving grace in giving them film serious gravitas. His electronic score pulses through The Neon Demon in a very meaningful way, and serves way beyond capacity as a truly memorable part of the viewing experience. Natasha Braier’s cinematography is worthy of some recognition come award season, as she builds a hypnotic cityscape that is beguiling yet oppressive (think Michael Mann remaking The Shining). There is a cold and hard quality to the cast, which is no doubt intentional, yet even those on the periphery of the fashion world Refn creates seem just as distant from human warm. As a result, you feel something amounting to apathy for most of the movie; with only a hint of bastard hate for Keanu Reeve’s skin crawling super creep, Hank.
The Neon Demon might look amazing, with its outstanding production design and lighting, but once you team it with Martinez’s chilling ambiance and then move on, there is little left to be excited about. This is a movie that gets so desperate for attention it resorts to Eli Roth levels of Necrophilia and cannibalism to try and shock rather than engage. Refn can handle violence and poetry so well, yet here he seems lost in his own mind. There is an old cliché that says you can have brains or beauty, but not both. With The Neon Demon, it seems that Refn has gone out of his way to prove such a point.
Film Grade: C-
A Making Of seems focused around a specific day in filming where we learn about Refn’s “energy blanket”!?, learn that Elle Fanning is just a sweet little girl, and learn direct for the film’s creator that he cares “more about the process of making than the actual end product”; ergo, the reason why the film is such a hot mess in the story department.
Martinez get his own little nod with Behind the Soundtrack, and a Director’s Commentary offers some neat anecdotes and Refn going so far as to spell out the meaning of the film.
Special Features Grade: D+
It wants to be Beauty AND the Beast, but purely for a narrative perspective, The Neon Demon is firmly in the latter catagory.