A Review of Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon: A Provocative and Visually Stylish Nightmare

Film: The Neon Demon
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Primary Cast: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Abbey Lee, Bella Heathcote, Karl Glusman, Keanu Reeves, Desmond Harrington, Alessandro Nivola, Christina Hendricks
US Release Date: 24 June 2016

Jesse (Fanning) is a quiet 16-year-old girl with the face of angel. She has no family. She has no friends. But she is beautiful, and that might just be enough.

When the film opens, Jesse is being shot by an aspiring photographer she met online (Glusman). Just after the shoot, she encounters Ruby (Malone), a makeup artist who prepares faces for photoshoots and funerals alike. When she learns that Jesse is new in town, Ruby takes her under her wing and even introduces her to a pair of older, more experienced models, named Gigi (Heathcote) and Sarah (Lee). After their initial meeting however, it becomes clear that Jesse won’t be developing any sort of friendship with Gigi or Sarah, as the two women are clearly threatened by her youth and by her potential to take the fashion industry by storm.

If Gigi and Sarah fear Jesse upon meeting her, they are right to do so; for, despite her young age, she is signed to a modelling agency within just days of moving to LA. Soon, she begins her ascent to the top. And then, things become very dark indeed.

Directed by the simultaneously acclaimed and reviled Nicolas Winding Refn, The Neon Demon is—to this viewer’s eyes and ears—one of the best movies of the year so far. This cinematic fashion show meets horror show is certainly not for everyone. It will anger, disgust, and disappoint many who see it; but The Neon Demon will also mesmerize, electrify, and delight numerous others. The surface of the film is slick and cold. Its mind is a surreal dreamscape. And its heart is dark, dead, and bloody. Yes, the film’s narrative is messy and occasionally lacking, and some of Refn’s stylistic choices may feel derivative, but regardless of any flaws, this bold, alluring, and indulgent film still provides an experience unlike any other to be had at the movies right now. Love it or hate it, The Neon Demon is not a film that audiences on either side of the fence will be forgetting any time soon. This film aims to titillate and disturb, and for the right viewers, it will do both.

Admittedly, I do still need to see some of Refn’s earlier work, but I still know that his films are intense and visually striking. As a director, he has the power to create dark, alluring, unforgettable fever dreams that both captivate and punish those who gaze on them. Refn is not afraid to alienate his audiences either, and he often seems to revel in making them uncomfortable. Though they vary in subject matter and degrees of success, Refn’s movies provide impactful and singular viewing experiences. I’ll never forget the way I felt while first watching Drive or Valhalla Rising, and to a slightly reduced degree, I can say the very same for Bronson and Only God Forgives. And now, I know that I’ll also always remember the first time I watched The Neon Demon. As Refn himself likes to say, the film “penetrated.” It gave me an experience that will not leave me—an experience marked by a sublime combination of the beautiful and the horrifying. And that alone is worth at least some celebration.

Like Jesse, The Neon Demon is visually spellbinding, and it gets much of its power from the way it looks. It knows this, and there is nothing inherently wrong with it either. Sure, the film may be shallow, but it is deliberately, and thoroughly so. If Refn’s characters seem to lack depth, that isn’t because he forgot to give them depth, but because this isn’t that sort of film. In The Neon Demon, Jesse and other models are reduced to nothing more than their appearances—a fact which can either destroy them, give them great power, or both. The film’s narrative is also somewhat sparse, and it often wanders without clear focus, but plot isn’t what matters here. The Neon Demon is much better at instilling feelings, at provoking thoughts, and at playing with its viewers senses than it is at telling a clear and detailed story, but that does not make it a bad film. The writing isn’t perfect—Dean should have been edited out, and the final moments did leave me wanting something more—but it is what it wants to be. Even if it is mostly surface, The Neon Demon remains fascinating and powerful. Maybe that’s the point—after all, there’s a reason the world Jesse navigates exists, and there’s a reason that corporations keeps using glossy airbrushed images of pretty girls to sell their garbage.

Quite frequently in Refn, style is substance, and those deriding The Neon Demon for possessing too much of one and not enough of the other are missing the mark. “Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

Or at least, it’s almost the only thing. The others are food, sex, and blood, and The Neon Demon embraces all three with wild abandon. Refn even includes hints of vampirism, in which food, sex, and blood are all but inseparable. More importantly, where the film is absurd or gruesome, it is supposed to be. As ridiculous as it may seem on paper, very little is uncalculated in this movie—and that certainly includes its most vile and upsetting moments. The world of the film devours young women and turns them into monsters all at once, and Refn portrays that in extremely vivid fashion.

**[This paragraph contains spoilers]** Men want to rape and use Jesse. Women want to rape, and kill, and be her. In such a nightmarish world, why wouldn’t there be room for such taboo acts as cannibalism and necrophilia? Perhaps The Neon Demon is shocking and awful for the sake of being shocking and awful, but it is also shocking and awful because it’s exciting and because it makes sense. When The Neon Demon begins, Jesse is posing as beautiful corpse. By the end, she does so once more. Not only is there a beautiful (and terrible) symmetry in that fact, but it’s how it always had to be; and it’s not actually that hard to imagine why Ruby, Gigi, or Sarah do what they do once one considers the realities of the world Refn places them in.

Refn doesn’t give two shits about catering to respectable sensibilities, and pleasing mainstream (or especially high brow) audiences is not what he does best. The man loves the dark and the horrible, and he isn’t above mixing erotic pleasure with graphic violence. Awful as he may be to some, Refn does not hide the fact that he takes delight in the base; instead, he gives viewers a chance to do the same within the comfort and safety of a movie theater. There is something incredibly and unabashedly self-indulgent about The Neon Demon, and viewers can be enraptured by it, or they can look away.

The performances in the film aren’t remarkable but don’t really need to be discussed, as they are all subordinate to Refn’s larger vision. Dialogue is not the primary means by which The Neon Demon moves along. For the most part, the cast are asked to look a certain way, to evoke a certain mood, and to maintain the film’s icy, glittery, glassy shell, and they do so beautifully.

What does need to be discussed is Cliff Martinez’s score. In fact, Refn owes a great deal to Martinez, whose work is one of the very best aspects of the film. His pounding, sparkling, and haunting tracks are crucial to The Neon Demon’s overall mood and effect, and Refn’s vision and cinematographer Natasha Braier’s images wouldn’t be complete without them. Like the neon triangles on the runway, and like the mirror that Sarah shatters in anger, the score is all sharp angles. It goes from incredibly dark to dazzlingly light at the drop of a hat. There is nothing gentle, or smooth, or timid about it, and it captures the seemingly dissonant subjects and tones of the film quite remarkably. Moreover, though some of the music is beautiful, it is dangerously so, and Martinez’s heavy use of synth and similar sounds doesn’t allow viewers to forget that it—like Gigi—is artificial in nature. Martinez’s score doesn’t simply enhance the film it accompanies; rather, it is an integral part of it, and it lends the film a dark, timeless, and otherworldly feel that elevates the entire cinematic effort.

For some, The Neon Demon may not be worth a single viewing. For others, it will demand many more. Refn is a provocateur, and his latest divisive work will evoke strong reactions from those who see it. Those who are receptive to Refn’s particular aesthetic, to his emphasis on the visual and the visceral, and to his rather depraved approach to his subject matter will leave The Neon Demon buzzing and intoxicated.

It’s not a comedy (at least, not on the surface), but I laughed when The Neon Demon ended, and I don’t think Refn would have minded my reaction in the slightest. When I laughed, I laughed with a sort of nasty glee that I can’t remember feeling in a movie theater before. I can’t quite describe it, but it was definitely there. Go see the film, and you just might feel it too. Don’t take it too seriously, and don’t let negative reviews deter you either. The Neon Demon is polarizing and imperfect, but it undoubtedly deserves to be seen all the same.

Until Next Time
I have no idea what I’ll be up to by the time The Neon Demon is available on Blu-ray, but I hope I’ll be able to take the time to rewatch the film and write up some more in-depth analysis—on how it works, on why it does what it does, and on what it has to say.

I may have to put this blog on a short hiatus sometime in late July/early August. I’ll be moving to LA, attempting to get my bearings, starting a job as a TA, and entering a Master’s program at that time, so things are going to be rather crazy for a while. If you want to keep up with me in the meantime, just follow this blog on twitter.


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