The Neon Demon
Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn.
Written by: Nicolas Winding Refn and Mary Laws & Polly Stenham.
Starring: Elle Fanning (Jesse), Jena Malone (Ruby), Bella Heathcote (Gigi), Abbey Lee (Sarah), Karl Glusman (Dean), Desmond Harrington (Jack), Keanu Reeves (Hank), Alessandro Nivola (Fashion Designer), Christina Hendricks (Jan).
No one is going to accuse director Nicolas Winding Refn of anything approaching subtlety. He doesn’t do things half way – he makes lurid, sexual, violent films, that at their best, revel in style, and are elevated by great performances and set pieces to become genre masterworks (like 2011’s Drive – a fairy tale by way of Michael Mann), and at worse, become empty, morose, slogs that revel in misery (2013’s Only God Forgives). Thankfully his latest film, The Neon Demon, is more of the former than the later – a knowingly shallow film about shallowness, The Neon Demon is disturbing from the beginning, and gets downright shocking in its final act. Winding Refn isn’t exactly saying anything new here about the fashion industry and society’s fetishization of young women, but he’s doing it all with such flare and style – and gets such good performances from his actors, who somehow don’t get lost in all the excess in every frame, I didn’t much care. The Neon Demon is the type of film you walk out, not sure what to make of – and even now, days later, I’m still not sure. I think I loved it – but honestly, I’m not sure.
The film stars Elle Fanning as Jesse – a 16 year old girl, fresh to L.A., who openly says she has no talent at anything, but is pretty – and she can make money off of pretty. The film introduces us to her drenched in blood, splayed out on a couch – but that’s all just for a photoshoot by amateur Dean (Karl Glusman) – the first of many creepy men behind cameras who will fetishize Jesse, even if he turns out to the be the nicest of the bunch, he still doesn’t much care when he finds out she’s only 16. It’s at that photoshoot that Jesse meets Ruby (Jean Malone) – who is apparently the only makeup artist in L.A., because no matter what shoot or fashion show we see for the rest of the movie, Ruby is the one doing the makeup (she also does the makeup for corpses for their open casket funerals). Like Dean, and soon everyone else in the film, Ruby is immediately taken in by Jesse and her innocence. Ruby introduces Jesse to a couple of older models – Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee) – and they’re the only ones in the movie who don’t immediately fall for her. Everyone else – from creepy photography Jack (Desmond Harrington) to creepier fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola) to creepiest motel manager Hank (Keanu Reeves) will do just that. In this way, the film reminded me a little of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999) – in which every character in the film that Cruise meets on his journey into the night responds to him in an overtly sexual way. Jesse is lusted after by everyone in the film – to use the old cliché, all the women want to be here and all the men want to be with her (although some of the women want to be with her as well).
It is hard to make a deep film about shallowness, and I think Winding Refn probably has the right idea in that he doesn’t really even try to do that. Jesse is, in many ways, a blank slate. She doesn’t reveal anything about her past, or really how she got to L.A., or even what her desires are. Fanning is a terrific actress – and there is something perfect about her casting in this movie as a young girl completely judged on her looks, who is pushed and pulled in different directions by the adults, and goes along with it. She was a child actor, so in a sense, there is part of that here – where a child is expected to perform an adult role. But Fanning does something interesting with Jesse – and keeps her that blank from beginning to end – there is no internal struggle with her. She is the embodiment of the fashion industry ideal – a beautiful, young girl, and a blank slate. Jena Malone has better role, and is brilliant in it, as Ruby – who certainly is more conflicted. Malone uses her slighted askew smile to brilliant effect in the film – she seems so nice, but there’s something untrustworthy about her, and a hunger about her performance that becomes more pronounced as it moves along. It’s one of the best performances of the year so far. As the two, older (and I use that term only in relation to Jesse) – both Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee, are also quite good – letting their perfect, ice queen facades, break a little bit at a time, until their actions in the last act make complete sense. The various men in the movie are all creeps – many of them, as mentioned before, behind cameras. Winding Refn knows he’s one of them, right?
The film is all style – lurid colors, a brilliant pulsating score by Cliff Martinez (quickly becoming one of my favorite movie composers for his work here, along with Drive and Spring Breakers – and various Soderberg films). There is nothing subtle about anything that Winding Refn does- and that is precisely what works about his films when they do work. The Neon Demon, after all, takes some horrific turns in its last act – turns that are designed to shock you, and they do. Yet they work in the context of the film because they are logical conclusion to what Winding Refn setup through the first two acts.
The Neon Demon is clearly not a film for everyone. It will be one that is too slow for some, or simply too much for others. Some will complain about the over-the-top style, or the sometimes too on-the-nose dialogue. They will argue the film is misogynistic (I don’t think it is, but I can see the case being made). I won’t argue too hard with anyone who hates The Neon Demon. But this is a film that knows exactly what it wants to be, and achieves what it sets out to do. It’s then just a question as to whether what it achieves it worth achieving at all. You decide.