It’s no longer vogue to throw around the word “polarizing” when discussing director Nicolas Winding Refn’s work or its lack of critical consensus. Case in Point: The Neon Demon. Those who want to bitch about or hate on his latest film have their right to, as well as those who glorify the film and its director to the high heavens. Then there is the small group of people who will throw up their hands, making up the indecisive middle ground of the flawed good-bad critical barometer. Nicolas Winding Refn has stated in countless interviews that if one of his films garners only one type of reception, he knows he has made a bad movie. He enjoys infuriating his audiences. Every image may connote many layers of interpretation or be a nod toward another filmmaker; inversely, each image may only be a ploy for Refn to wink at his films’ viewers, to fool them. Whatever the case, you can’t help but respect the man for creating worlds to enthrall and confound both the casual moviegoer and thinking person.
The plot is simple enough. A teenage girl names Jesse (played with a doe-eyed expression by Elle Fanning) arrives in Los Angeles in hopes of becoming a model. While she stays in a dump of a Pasadena motel, she meets a variety of characters, including makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone) who also juggles a job fixing up corpses at a morgue (more on that later). After being signed to a modeling agency and doing a test photography session, Jesse’s natural beauty catches the attention of nearly everyone, including an enthralled big-name fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola from Jurassic Park III and American Hustle), which causes other silicone-bodied models to become jealous.
Now to the main question: is The Neon Demon any good? This inquiry cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. What I can tell you that it is a truly visceral experience. The use of bright colors, primarily blues and reds, tense atmosphere, and surrealism warrants comparison to Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch. In terms of tone, Refn’s film is a second cousin to David Cronenberg’s 2014 film, Map to the Stars, about shallowness in Hollywood. But rather than wallow outright in the hollow scene, Refn disguises it with surreal symbolism. One example of this occurs when Jesse returns to her hotel room to find a cougar broke in. For me, this seemed to be a nod toward Val Lewton’s production of Jacques Tourneur’s classic 1942 picture Cat People. The presence of the cougar suggests a repressed self that once released will be deadly to others.
In terms of the acting, Elle Fanning’s superb performance is supported by a varied cast. Jena Malone seems to be the most developed character. Even as the main antagonist, your mind is tricked into trusting her as Jesse naively does. Alessandro Nivola is the other standout in the group, perfectly embodying his flawed worldview of beauty. Rounding out the cast is a sadly underutilized Christina Hendricks (Mad Men, Drive)—ironically her model agency character Roberta Hoffmann seems to be the opposite of her real life promotion of embracing natural beauty—and up-and-coming Karl Glusman as the earnest Dean who befriends Jesse. In a surprising turn, Keanu Reeves has a bit part as the sleazy hotel proprietor who has a penchant for being rude and fantasizing about the young girls he rents rooms to, including (to paraphrase his words) a thirteen-year-old runaway who is a real Lolita-type. There has been plenty of publicity about Refn’s portrayal of women in the film, including many people who’ve downright judged him as “getting women entirely wrong.” I invite you to be the judge of that yourself; it is obvious Refn is making a statement about women and beauty, but is he really aiming for accuracy or caricature? That line is intentionally blurred.
At one point in the film, the fashion designer states that you can always tell when beauty has been manufactured. Truly, the film has been constructed by an auteur with a singular vision. The Neon Demon wants to be a horror film, a black comedy, an expose on the façade of the modeling business, and much more. The gelling of these elements is not entirely cohesive, however, which gives more of a manufactured feel to the film, rather than actual sentiment and gravitas. In addition, character development and motivations for each person’s actions nearly derail the third act. For example, Jesse states, “You know what my mother used to call me? Dangerous.” Yet, there seems to be no context for this statement, unless it’s buried in subtext that struggles to make itself known.
In addition, after a scene where her advances are scorned by Jesse, Ruby totally becomes unhinged. In a moment that entirely makes no sense, she engages in necrophilia with a corpse she was tasked to beautify for a funeral. A combination of body horror and psychological horror at this point, concern about the gratuitousness of this scene has been raised—but rest-assured that while the scene is disturbing, it is not on the extreme level of such schlock films as Nekromantik (don’t ask . . .). The following scenes involving a confrontation between some models and Jesse also verge on implied cannibalism and an entirely off-the-wall ending scene involving an eyeball (I’m not making this up, since anything can happen in Nicolas Winding Refn’s world). Such a bizarre third act is what split the Cannes audience between boos and applause.
Although not a fully cohesive, satisfying work, The Neon Demon is an experience. As a third part to what I would like to call Refn’s thematically and aesthetically linked “Neon Trilogy”—preceded by Drive and Only God Forgives—I would label The Neon Demon as a success for the director. It is more dangerous than Drive, and more engaging than the puzzling Only God Forgives. The film also represents a maturation from his earlier works like Bronson, Valhalla Rising, and the Pusher trilogy. Recently, Nicolas Winding Refn has stated he’d like to produce remakes of the giallo classic What Have You Done to Solange? and Bruce Campbell’s cult-vehicle, Maniac Cop, in the interim between The Neon Demon and his next film. We can only wait with anticipation for how these proposed projects might turn out. In the meantime, Refn has left us with this film, which can be as deep or shallow as you want.
The Neon Demon
Starring: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves
Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Written by: Mary Laws, Nicolas Winding Refn, Polly Stenham
Running time: 117 minutes