Film Review: Neon Demon

by Gordon Elgart on June 24, 2016

What an amazing movie. Parts of it may repulse you. Go see it anyway.

Elle Fanning in Nicolas Winding Refn's Neon Demon

Nicolas Winding Refn doesn’t care what you think about his movies. He makes films without traditional plots, and with a fair measure of gruesome violence. He believes himself so important that he uses a little NRW monogram under the title card of his features. He doesn’t feel the need to explain anything to the audience; instead, he deals with metaphor and buried meaning. Regardless of whether or not his movies fall under any old fashioned idea of what’s “good,” he’s awesome at making them.

Neon Demon is essentially one big metaphor. What happens in the movie might be happening, or it might not. There is both text and subtext, but to guess which scenes are which isn’t really the point. Are things really happening, or just happening in the characters’ minds? You won’t know and you probably won’t care. There’s definitely a storyline in the movie, and the character motivations are clear, but it’s really hard to sit someone down over dinner and tell them the plot of the movie. I’ll do my best to sum it up.

Jesse, a 16-year old girl from an unknown somewhere who comes to Los Angeles to make a career out of being pretty. (Yes, she says this.) She does this by entering into the world of high fashion modeling, where she immediately makes a big impression. Jena Malone’s Ruby, a makeup artist who sees something special in Jesse, introduces her to friends, models played by Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee.  These women feel threatened by the new kid in town, who’s seen by everyone as amazingly special. Then there’s attention, both wanted and unwanted, from the men in her life — photographers, boyfriends, designers — and we see the effect these have on her personality, and how her unmatched beauty affects them all. Some weird stuff happens. The end.

That’s an oversimplification of the plot, perhaps, but the movie is a series of scenes that live inside these themes. There’s no three act structure. This movie is about what the characters are, not what they do. The movie moves at a very slow pace, luxuriously gazing at beautiful people shot in beautiful ways, lit with intensity and framed with precision by Natasha Braier (“The Rover,” “XXY”), who is probably the best female cinematographer in the world. Hopefully, this film will make her the first ever woman nominated for an Oscar for Best Cinematography, the only category that has never had a woman even be nominated.

The movie stealing performances come from the trio of women who are personally affected by the arrival of Elle Fanning’s Jesse. Jena Malone slides wonderfully from trusted friend to can she be trusted? Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee take turns battling with Jesse, both internally and externally, often delivering dialogue in a dry, biting manner that fits their characters perfectly. You completely understand them, even though their backstories are only hinted at.

The music comes from Cliff Martinez, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and regular collaborator with Refn, and it’s perfect. There are propulsive synth tracks that are becoming his calling card, but also blasts of tone reminiscent of Wendy Carlos’s A Clockwork Orange masterwork. The music is paired perfectly with the images on the screen, and certain musical cues had me grinning from ear to ear.

Now, a fair warning. There are scenes here that will probably sicken you. Walkouts have happened during parts of this movie, and while many in the audience were laughing at the ridiculousness of it all, others can’t handle it. Lines are absolutely crossed, and while the film’s conclusion demands it, you should know that this isn’t necessarily a pleasant ride. It’ll be hard to stomach for many people. Sticking it out is worthwhile, for sure.

What will surprise you, then, is how funny this movie can be. (The marketing made it look like a horror film but it isn’t one at all.) Keanu Reeves, in particular, gets big laughs as the owner of a cheap motel in Pasadena. What doesn’t happen is laughing at things that aren’t meant to be funny. This isn’t one of those films; instead, Refn actually does comedy, and does it well, and I wonder what the future might hold for him.

Whatever it does hold, however, I’ll be there. Like it or hate it, there’s just no sense in missing a Nicolas Winding Refn movie. This one has shades of Suspiria, Mullholland Drive, Black Swan, Showgirls, Blow-Up, A Clockwork Orange, and much, much more. It might be 20 years before it’s seen as a masterpiece, but I’m fairly certain it will get there.

Neon Demon opens nationwide today. See it in a theater with excellent sound and a properly set projector. It deserves to be seen that way.

Gordon Elgart

A music nerd who probably uses that term too much. I have a deep love for bombastic, quirky and dynamic music.

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