Reading about some of the horrific things shown in Nicolas Winding Refn‘s The Neon Demon is like reading a parody of an exaggeratedly violent horror story/fan-fiction piece penned by the edgiest of misunderstood teenagers. Fortunately, the film itself has a lot of style and aesthetic knack, although it’s arguable if that makes up for its somewhat flat characters and, yet again, the shocking imagery that either ends up comical or looks perhaps a little too familiar.
Refn is previously known for Drive (a reportedly excellent film that I still need to see, so that I may re-do my shoddy Best of 2011 list) and the Pusher trilogy (which prominently featured the Russian guy from 2012). My exposure to his previous work is greatly limited, yet I’m sure he has made more impressive motion pictures in his time than what we have here.
Elle Fanning is Jesse, a young girl in Los Angeles with dreams of becoming a model. She is eyed by a makeup artist named Ruby (Jena Malone) and befriends two other model teens named Sarah and Gigi, played respectively by Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcore, which leads to her signing a contract with a big-name modeling agency. This all seems well and good until Jesse proves to be a little too beautiful, particularly in an area where beauty is the only thing of worth to anyone, which a brutal fashion designer played by Alessandro Nivola points out to Jesse in a scene where he also asks her boyfriend Dean (Karl Glusman) whether he would still give two damns about her if she weren’t as beautiful. I feel like this maybe-slightly is a commentary on something.
Nevertheless, envy towards Jess begins to set in amongst the young girls. Soon she also learns that her peers and competitors have a literal thirst for blood, and gets herself involved in a series of gruesomely violent and sexually explicit scenarios, all of which get a little less funny in their silliness once you stop to ask yourself how young these girls are actually supposed to be. Other than that, though, the content and story curiously reminded me of Aronofsky’s Black Swan and made me feel like watching that again.
In smaller roles, Keanu Reeves and Christina Hendricks (who was also in Drive) can be spotted. I doubt I’m alone in thinking that this movie might have been a significant deal spookier if it was about Reeves’ evidently halted aging process. I know I’d rather see that than a film with a synopsis that essentially reads “female teen models eat each other out of jealousy” (it grabs your curiosity, I’ll give them that).
If I were to judge this film purely on, say, its use of colors, lights, framing, and camera movements (other critics have compared its imagery to Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and even Kubrick’s Shining), I might have loved it. As fate would have it, however, the movie does a few too many things wrong for me to let it slide as a fun, nice-to-look-at bloodfest. It’s not exactly Poultrygeist; it clearly has ambition of being something more dramatic, biting and harrowing than that. I dunno, it could have used a zombie chicken or two.
Even then, much of its imagery looks as if it has origins in other, mostly much better films. Several shots in The Neon Demon made me think of the terrific 2014 film Under the Skin, other parts were remarkably “Carrie-esque”, and I have already mentioned Twin Peaks and Black Swan. In terms of the latter, I can assure you it doesn’t stop at the plot similarities.
Elle Fanning is a stupendously talented actress (big sister Dakota must be proud, wherever she is) and The Neon Demon does nothing to disprove that. There are some moments where she comes off as distant, sure, but she does well with what she has and she will continue to do great work in Hollywood. Hopefully in great films that I can wholeheartedly recommend. The Neon Demon I recommend only in terms of the visuals, not only because of how beautiful they look, but because it might be fun to play a game based on how many other movies you can think of whilst observing them.
I’ve posted my final rating and a trailer below. I know this is another one of my late reviews (not that I’m the type that actually cares), but I will focus on comparatively more current things soon. Say, isn’t the Fourth of July just around the corner?