Movie Review: The Neon Demon is a lurid thrill for an arthouse audience

Jun 23 2016, 1:52 pm

A pseudo-horror art film for the Snapchat crowd, The Neon Demon is a dissection of the dazzlingly short shelf life of young beauty in Hollywood.

The backstabbing, fighting, and sexualized politics of the industry are viewed through the eyes of Jesse, played by Elle Fanning in a performance that hits the exact notes that the film needs as the story eventually dissolves into a sea of bloodlust and violence. It’s almost like a vampire film, except these bloodsuckers cruise Rodeo Dr. with the top down in the daylight and party under the strobe lights at night.

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Shifting his focus from violent men to jealous and (eventually) violent women allows co-writer/director Nicholas Winding Refn opportunities to touch upon some thematic material he would normally steer clear of. But only just a touch, because the filmmaker’s repeated emphasis on the most primal instincts of mankind are once again deified on the altar of high modern art. He simultaneously dares you to look away yet would become needy if you didn’t give it your attention.

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There are moments when The Neon Demon feels like a more sinister take on the same themes and imagery that Knight of Cups explored earlier this year. If that sounds like your type of Hollywood tale, then you’re in luck. The film follows young Jesse (the aforementioned and enigmatic Fanning) as she attempts to break into the modelling world in Los Angeles.

She’s run away from home and living in a poorly maintained motel managed by a greasy guy played by Keanu Reeves. This version of C-list-pornstar-Neo seethes misogyny and contempt in every furrowed brow and snarky punctuations of contempt. It’s a welcome change of pace for the actor and a nice little Keanu-appetizer before John Wick Chapter 2 shows up to kick everyone’s ass.

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Jesse finds more than she bargained for when a top talent agent (Christina Hendricks) helps her reach the apex of in-demand modelling work. This results in jealousy and bloodthirsty anger from two of Jesse’s snobby peers (Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote) while gaining her the friendship and admiration of the more reserved Ruby. As played by Jena Malone, Ruby unexpectedly becomes the wounded centre of Refn’s tilted L.A. universe.

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Nicholas Winding Refn, as is apparent by now, fancies himself a true auteur, with all the pretension that label connotes. He presents his name without designation at the start of the film as if he were taking a page from Lars von Trier. Refn seems, again, less interested in people than he is in their obsessions, their violent behaviours, and their sexual deviancies. There is a scene taking place in a morgue that feels both completely unnecessary and yet wholly integral to the full experience of The Neon Demon. It’s disturbing but also a little heartbreaking, when viewed explicitly in context of one particular character’s arch. It’s also a rare moment where it feels like Refn is genuinely more interested in upsetting the audience’s system than he is in satiating his own artistic internal drive.

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As the film unfolds at a leisurely pace you’ll either be drawn into its gaze or bored senseless. By the end of it all, however, there will be more than a couple of indelible images that will startle you regardless of your engagement with the material. Some may find the film’s final moments darkly hilarious, others may be confounded, and most will be disgusted. And yet it all feels somewhat inevitable, like the movie was always creeping up to this point from the get-go.

This is a film meant to be devoured more than once, and Refn exerts such (seemingly) exacting control over every moment that one has to believe there are rewards to reap if you’re willing and able to take the challenge again. It would also make a nice companion piece with Refn’s previous narrative feature, Only God Forgives. Both it and The Neon Demon are painted with the same visual palette and examine violence and ego in similar, yet excitingly different, ways.

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There are some fantastically composed frames in Refn’s film, and one should make no mistake that The Neon Demon is, above all else, a showcase for the acclaimed director. Those expecting a traditional story or even an engaging barebones story are going to leave disappointed. For Refn’s M.O. here is to create art for the sake of art and not necessarily widespread public acceptance. His singular expression of atmosphere, mood, and tone effectively block the film from accessibility (for the most part).

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This all makes The Neon Demon difficult to recommend. Arthouse hipsters will no doubt love its mix of ultraviolence and bloody pontification but it’s doubtful that general audiences will be open to it. Unlike Refn’s breakout film Drive, The Neon Demon lacks the digestible logline and sheen of “action entertainment” that 2011 picture delivered. But for what it is, The Neon Demon is an escapable glowing beacon of the dead angel on these women’s shoulders. Approach it if you dare, but don’t be shocked if it bites back before letting you pet it into malcontented subservience.

★ ★ ★ ½

The Neon Demon is rated 14A and is now playing at a cinema near you.

Dan NichollsDan Nicholls

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