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Review: The Neon Demon

This review was originally published in Nathaniel's column at Towleroad

What are we looking at? 

The Neon Demon‘s first tableau features Elle Fanning, throat slit and reclining on a chaise lounge floating over a pool of photogenic crimson blood. It’s so perfectly lit and shaped it begs to be honored as a metaphoric pedestal exalting her death. Is the obviously smitten man photographing all of this her serial killer who missed his calling as an art director?

No. As it turns out the man is just a naive photographer named Dean (played by rising actor Karl Glusman), and she’s just a 16 year-old amateur model named Jesse (played by perpetually in-demand and newly 18 starlet Elle Fanning) trying to fill out her ‘book’ so she can land a big time modeling agency. And this off-putting but hypnotic opening scene is just writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn’s (Drive) provocative bid to grab our attention. This first image promises a creepy, colorful, sadistic, eroticized visual spectacle about the commodification and objectification and… uh… murder of beautiful women. Whatever sins you might be willing to condemn the movie for committing, you can’t say that it’s a liar. It delivers what it’s promising.

One of the many immediately hypnotic images in the film

Jesse is immediately well-liked or lusted after by a hot fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola, hilariously dismissive… unless he’s interested), a famous photographer (Desmond Harrington, silent and creepy… did he learn that on Dexter?), and a powerful modeling agency executive (Christina Hendricks, still mesmerizing post Mad Men).  She also befriends two models Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote) who actually hate her – because where would a fashion picture be without diva catfighting? — and a super friendly makeup artist named Ruby (Jena Malone) who exudes both genuine warmth and unmistakable shadiness. Yes, Jena Malone steals the whole picture with that neato acting trick.

The Neon Demon gets progressively weirder and campier as it progresses which should endear certain audiences to it (*raises hand, shamelessly*). And yet it’s also so bereft of ideas beyond juvenile proclamations like “Women are jealous bitches! Men are rapists! Gays are predatory! Fashion world is evil! Beauty is fascism!” that there’s not much to grab on to other than its bold strokes ridiculousness.

In this case the cliché is true: beauty really is skin deep.

The most surreal touches (a wild animal here, a cryptic visual triangle there) don’t totally pay off either. Perhaps the hollow center is Jesse herself? If she’s meant to be more than a cypher (perhaps she’s not) than Elle Fanning’s blank stares and slow-to-get-it dialogue don’t help. As the provocations mount — culminating in a few truly repellent scenes which may yet earn the movie a place in cult history —  they offer diminishing returns. But damn it the movie is Sickeningly Gorgeous. And that’s “sickening” in both the Webster’s and the Gay Vernacular definitions.

Though Nicolas Winding Refn once seemed like an abnormally obsessive young auteur (see the violent and very naked Bronson starring Tom Hardy) and then maybe even like a true visionary (see Drive’s minimalist verve maximized by visual flair) his last two pictures, Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon have not exactly made good on his international promise. The violence is starting to feel like a crutch, for one, a means to its own end. But all that said, Refn hasn’t yet lost his flair for striking iconography, or his aggressive visual confidence in both composition and content … but in the service of what?

Those of you who love deranged movies, future cult curios, or the cocky perversity of three name Danish auteurs (see also Lars von Trier) should run to the theater immediately — it’s not that it’s “good” but it’s unmissable if you fall into these categories.

Anyone else may want to steer clear of this bloody show. Sometimes the blood is fake and sometimes it’s real, but either way that catwalk is slippery, and who wants to be fashion roadkill?

Grade: B/D Yes, I'll reconsider it in a few years if needs be...
Oscar Chances: In a perfect world, AMPAS could set content and narrative aside for aesthetic consideration. We don't live in that kind of world, Thelma. 



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Reader Comments (16)

Can Jena Malone be a bigger star please?

June 28, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRyan

I really hated The Neon Demon - an early contender for worst film of the year. I can forgive something for being all style and zero substance, but I can't forgive bad dialogue (sinner: Refn) or bad acting (sinners: Abbey Lee Kershaw, Bella Heathcote, Keanu Reeves, Karl Glusman, and Elle Fanning)
And I can't forgive such a throwaway plot (literally as Refn threw away the 2nd half of the script, which I'm sure his two co-writers were thrilled about!).

And while Elle is cute, she's hardly beautiful - it didn't seem realistic that everybody in the movie was so jealous of her looks.
The best acting came from Jena Malone and
Christina Hendricks - too bad she appeared so briefly.
Aside from all the bad acting/bad dialogue, the movie was surprisingly tame and kinda boring - I was expecting more blood and gore. And the movie was unengaging, because none of the characters are fleshed out, which meant you didn't care for any of them or what happened to them.
Take away Cliff Martinez' music and Natasha Braier's cinematography and there's NOTHING to The Neon Demon.

+Refn's use of Los Angeles this time around was very uninspired.
The way he used L.A. for Drive felt very fresh at the time - I haven't seen that movie in a while.

Only God Forgives was equally bad.

^This was originally published on YouTube! - DP30's interview with NWR.
I just copy-pasted!

June 28, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterUlrich

Is anyone in the cast Kristin Scott Thomas good? She's Oscar-worthy in Only God Forgives.

June 28, 2016 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

I agree with your review. I didn't like the film, but I can't dismiss it. It adds up to very little in the end. What is the point of Keanu Reeves's character, and what the heck drew him to the role? I do like that Refn is infatuated with Los Angeles and he depicts it in such a "sickeningly gorgeous" way that appeals to this Angeleno. I'm hoping for another LA film from him that is more along the lines of "Drive."

June 28, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRaul

I think this is the movie with the best cinematography ever by a female DP.


But I feel so empty, it's like I haven't seen nothing but void?

June 28, 2016 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

(Von Trier and Refn hate each other. LVT tried to score with NWR's wife - a prank, obviously)

June 28, 2016 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

I didn't hate the film, like other people did. In fact, there is plenty to appreciate: the acting (in particular by Fanning, Malone, Lee, and Heathcote), the cinematography, and the score. But the direction is so incredibly uneven. At the very end, it becomes a piece of torture porn and it felt incredibly out of place compared to the first two thirds of the picture.

June 28, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMatt St.Clair

I just am still trying to wrap my head around why Refn would want to cover this topic? It's like he took a bunch of ideas he's always wanted to try and made it in one movie. It's a mess. A beautiful mess, but, nevertheless, a mess.

June 28, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCourtney

I taught Elle Fanning was PHENOMENAL! So far one of my favorite performance by an actress this year. There I said it & I stand by it!

June 28, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterstjeans

The gif at the end of the review is mesmerizing. I could watch it all day.

June 28, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterEz

Ez -- that's actually from the end credits which are amazing. It's glitter magic just eye popping color and design.

June 29, 2016 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Totally agreed with all of this review, which was also a joy to read. Maybe I like Malone less than others do, but I really enjoyed Heathcote and Lee. And everything you say about the hypnotic images goes equally for the sound, in my opinion. Weird to see a Karl Glusman picture where he isn't the one murdering people, or crushing their spirits, or baring his scrotum, or all three.

(AutoCorrect tried to change Heathcote to Healthcare, which struck me as hilarious.)

June 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNick Davis

In a perfect world Jena Malone would get serious oscar consideration for this part

June 29, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJake

Since they're removing this from most multiplexes near me after Wednesday I made sure to see it today. Keanu with the knife and the necrophilia scene stayed with me. The first because it was semi-erotic hearing Keanu say open wider and wish he was using something other than a knife. The MPAA stated there would be a scene of aberrant sexuality never occurred to me necrophilia was an option! NWR is a reason to go see movies in a theater which makes him one of our most important living auteurs.

July 6, 2016 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

I loved everything until the necrophilia scene. It was so shocking to me i completely threw me out of the film. If only it wasn't there. I'd consider it a masterpiece. Like a modern Suspiria.

September 24, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAgent69

The scene bothered me too. But the audacity of it pushes Demon beyond its safe comforts of kink and satire.

September 24, 2016 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

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