by Corey Koepper
★★★ 1/2 (OUT OF 5)
RATED R 1h 57 min
June 24 2016 THRILLER, HORROR
DIRECTOR: Nicolas Winding Refn
There’s a certain level of underground hype that builds when a filmmaker’s work is booed off the screen at Cannes more than once. It asks the question, among others, what could possible come our way that’s crazier than last time? Following up the lyrical ugliness of the unfairly panned Only God Forgives, stylistic provocateur Nicholas Winding Refn is back at it again with a visually spellbinding thriller, which mimics the divisively slow pace and squirmy content of its reviled predecessor, and then cranks up the volume in an effort to prove that as far as unseemly taste is concerned, a ceiling can be hard to find.
Whether you find The Neon Demon fascinating, fun, boring, thrilling, or repulsive is likely dependent on how interested you are in the director’s co-mingling of poetic and pulpy elements. Drive is still probably Refn’s best movie, and it’s no surprise that it found the most mainstream acceptability in the Danish director’s repertoire. Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon are still exemplary of the visual craft, skillful recycling of genre elements, and dreamlike atmosphere of the 2011 hit, minus any substantial attention to narrative or an emotional arc that hooks the audience in a meaningful, even profound, way.
Refn’s Cannes fiascoes are more the result of a man at the height of exploring visual psychology and candy coated imagery, but who is now popular enough to fully unleash anarchy onscreen without little smear to the brand he’s created for himself. These are films that demand to be seen with an audience; whether the people around you boo, cheer, or gasp, Refn has created an image for himself that generates an expectation of participatory insanity. I feel like some people think of Refn as some sort of poser for this, as if his lifting of tone and style from the likes of Lynch, Kubrick, De Palma, or Argento for the purpose of his oversaturated, Freudian dreams is an offensive idea. But when I get as much of a kick out of a movie like The Neon Demon, I find myself telling my inner cynic to chill, and to just, as Refn intends, participate in the insanity.
In Demon‘s case, what it lacks in originality and substance is offset by the camera’s exploration of a captivating, neon soaked world and its corrupt inhabitants. While it may be up to individual viewers to buy into the midnight movie madness of Refn’s recent work, I can at least say that for those already addicted to this flavor of Kool Aid, The Neon Demon doesn’t disappoint. It will continue to add and subtract viewers to Refn’s rebel cult, depending on their sensibilities. And despite its occasionally painful missteps, I can’t help but be shocked by how watchable I found it.
In a movie that uses the concept of “manufactured beauty” as a stylistic and thematic device, Elle Fanning gives a genuinely awesome performance in a role that easily could have fallen into Ryan Gosling-staring-into-space territory. Fanning plays Jesse, a teenage model who moves to L.A. to start a modeling career. The wearing away of Jesse’s innocence is provoked by an environment that favors physical beauty over all else, to the point where the epitome of one “lighting up the room” becomes like a heroin habit that feeds on evil from the subconscious. Morality and empathy, among Jesse and her jealous model acquaintances (who lack her naturally youthful demeanor), become lost in the relentless tunnel vision of pursuing that high. Supporting performances, including Jena Malone as Jesse’s first L.A. friend, an alleged makeup artist, are equally compelling.
One of Refn’s key strengths is exemplifying how certain groups and institutions are capable of bringing out the worst in human nature. Admittedly, it’s kind of obvious that a societal glorification of physical beauty might provoke a collective, superficial way of thinking. What some might find offensive is The Neon Demon‘s usage of female participants in the modelling industry to articulate this idea, especially when these characters serve more as props to convey these themes than to become fully realized human beings who are manipulated by their environment. But Refn has never really been interested in anything other than extremes, and those on display in Demon present a visual challenge that Refn and director of photography Natasha Braier are more than happy to bludgeon to death (in the best possible way).
The movie generally feels like a giallo film crossed with the latest edition of Vogue Italia. Between its use of bold colorization, white light that floods through windows in horizontal streams, red and blue lens flares, surreal one-point perspective, and countless other techniques, The Neon Demon crafts an environment of L.A. and the modeling world that fulfills its intention of submerging the audience in artificial beauty and pizzazz, but of a sort that mercilessly sucks us in, like it does the characters.
“Subtle” is not a word I’d use to describe anything in this movie, including dialogue that occasionally succumbs to freshman-level philosophizing. But there’s a certain artful charm to a shot of Jesse in her slummy motel room, staring into a mirror as the camera slowly pushes in, that captures a space she hopes to transcend, in the manner in which she sees it. Despite his over-the-top execution of the already ridiculous material, cooked from a script co-written with Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, it’s moments like these that remind you how truly in control of his craft Refn is, even if you may not agree with his perspective or particularly enjoy what he does with it.
Where the film began to lose me is when it pulls an absurd wildcard (or not, depending on your expectations) by descending into full ’70s/’80s exploitation horror during its final third. Yet I did find the concept of a career/city/state of mind “eating” a character alive, when applied to horror tropes, to be pretty interesting. What is seemingly less forgivable is how much time the movie spends ogling at its own visual brilliance and female characters, only to hypocritically tell us that their lifestyle, which is depicted as foregrounding beauty at the cost of human decency, is the stuff of pure evil. But if you make the argument that this approach only deepens our immersion in the characters’ world, than I guess Demon has no problem trumping that criticism.
I don’t really see Nicholas Winding Refn as a credible source on matters such as female competitiveness or jealousy, and I was a little peeved that not one female character transcends the corruption inherent in the movie’s world, while nice guy Karl Glusman, despite giving a quite good performance, is the only one immune. At least Keanu Reeves plays a character (incredibly well, at that) who displays a particular type of male-induced evil that isn’t glossed over; similarly, two scenes feature a fashion photographer (Desmond Harrington) who basically exploits his subjects, but is still praised a champion of his craft and basically gets to do whatever he wants within the film’s cynical world of glitz.
Maybe Refn sees himself in the environment of this movie, as a creator who fetishizes these things and favors aesthetic beauty over all else, and because of it, finds little opportunity in his current work to empathize with human beings. He’s more interested in a condition, a psychological state, than anything approaching the complexity of studying real people. This unique parallel between creator and creation, especially as the film addresses the primal thrill of watching and being watched, ultimately enhances the intrigue of The Neon Demon for me. This concept is at least thought-provoking enough to casually let the film’s emptiness slide to the back of your mind.
From its trippy opening credits, featuring a graphical seal of N.W.R.’s initials that posit him as Demon‘s authoritative fashion designer, to an absolutely nutty climax, Demon knows its audience and gives them all the unhinged mania they could want, bathed in a synthy Cliff Martinez score that ranks among the composer’s coolest. Overall, you basically get what you pay for. It’s a thrill ride for the arthouse crowd, a superhero flick for moviegoers who talk about Fellini before the trailers. It’s also the cinematic equivalent of subversive, meta comic Bo Burnham singing, “I hate catchy choruses, but I’m a hypocrite… a hungry, hungry hypocrite” as his catchy chorus. Although his Freudian shtick may be growing a little dull at this point (“Violence is like sex… Making movies is like sex,” and so on) The Neon Demon proves that the half-satiric, gloriously grotesque Refn brand is very much alive and well. Allowing it to feed on you for two hours, and potentially days after, is mainly a matter of appetite.