THE NEON DEMON (2016)
reviewed by Audy Christianos
R | 118 min | France, Denmark, USA | June 24, 2016 (USA)  
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Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

Writers: Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham 

Stars: Elle Fanning, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves    

Runtime: 118 min

Language: English

Color: Color

When aspiring model Jesse moves to Los Angeles, her youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will take any means necessary to get what she has.

Refn’s second movie since his art-house modernist crime thriller Drive, and the languid paced oedipal puzzle box of Only God Forgives, set The Neon Demon up with anticipatory fail with its hallowed promise of its drippy style and euro-trash attitude blithely delivered with a blank cynicism of altruistic obtrusiveness. This is Refn’s second time filming in L.A. and it’s clear that Refn, like so many other directors loves the warm, cool slick blanket the city tucks behind its films, but with this latest effort, it’s quite apparent L.A. no longer loves him back. The movie which is led by soft-faced, saucer eyed Elle Fanning, follows her character Jesse, an aspiring, orphan entering into the cutthroat subterranean, lethal culture of high fashion. Jesse, in the beginning of the movie is 16, and wants to be a model but lies to get jobs. She tells a weird, gaunt, hipster photographer that she is 19. She gets the job because we need the movie to move forward; and for every audition, she gets to the front of the line, possessing a power with her look and thus is the subject inexplicable industry worship.

Of course this comes at a cost – She bumps into Jena Malone’s, necropheliac loving - going my way - make-up artist Ruby, who at first seems to genuinely care for Jesse, but looks can be deceiving. It’s not that her character, as mouthpiece proxy of Refn’s visual style isn’t interesting nor doesn’t care for Jesse, but, it’s clear Refn has better things to do as in keeping you submerged in the hot liquid sheen of his film.

The movie’s biggest fault is two folded: It purposely left vague as to what type of movie it is, along with Refn choosing to template the film as a philosophical discourse on how beauty makes the fashion world go round which, as a thematic center is a really insipid thesis. Is Refn’s film a horror? - Maybe, is it a thriller – at times, is it Sci-Fi? Only if Cliff Martinez’s score dictates it, or is it a drama? Sure if you count Keanu Reeves having to eat the cost of the broken door to Jesse’s mountain lion booty call. The trouble with this film, is that on his own merits Refn, is anything but uninteresting and definitely knows what he is doing, but there seems to be a tension within himself on giving it to us in a digestable manner. Things can look cool, but that only goes so far with a film that limps to its ungratifying climax. This movie is representational of Refn at his best and worst: giving us a sexy, irresistible, hot plate of brilliant visual gibberish.

Fashion, as one might guess is a complex thing: easy to admire, hard to intellectually grasp and esoteric in is industrial sensibility to the general public. One assumes, with fashion, that yes, it’s an industry built on good-looking clothes, skyscraper legged models, and fashion designers that are the real auteurs in telling what you want before you know. Movies that reflect this commentary, transport you into the world, exposing the machinations of how, beauty is everything, and without it, you’re an apparition. This is apparent in the comedy Devil Wears Prada, or the Anna Wintour-centric documentary the September issue about Vogue – but the thing with those movies that made the message translatable regarding the currency of beauty, that Refn didn’t get right, is that there was a tangible reason to the commodity of beauty that drove those movies, and how it can be leveraged into business, that runs deeper, meaningful beyond the vapid quandary of beauty on the outside, ugly on the inside complex. Refn decides to not prove the worth of his interest with any intellectual validation other than having a dead-ended silly discourse of beauty in the emptiest, styrofoamic way possible. 
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Elle Fanning, who was 16 at the beginning of the production, and 18 as I write this, was at home with this movie. She cloyed and babydolled every scene in the best way possible, giving into the predatory threatening danger of the world around her. You can see why Refn casted her. She possessed a freshness, and versatility that I don’t know many other actresses her age could have provided. She needed to be innocent, naïve yet, dangerously conceited that plays into an ultimate school girl benevolence and when Refn decides to stabilized his music video mania, he gives uncomfortable, evocative moments built around her, but that is all they are – moments, not a film.

 Refn has the filmmaking strength to have you squirm with enticement, but there isn’t a momentum to push it with more force. I can only hope that, Refn, will stop trying to write his own films – he’s not David Lynch, and this isn’t Mulholland Drive, for if it were, I would give an honest effort on wanting to find out more, but I don’t because there isn’t anything worth salvaging. Strobe light, thumping rave music is well-meaning window dressing, but this needed narrative juice to easily down the demented abstraction at the sake of a more cohesive film structure. 

This movie could have been better, and Refn knows that. It is unforgettable on how it chose to tell its story visually, but beyond that it was too “Valley Beyond the Dull”. The film industry has a love hate relationship with Refn – he was booed and jeered his last two times at Cannes for this and Only God Forgives – but because we want more, and know that he is capable, he seems perfectly adept to letting us down for the second movie in a row, and now he is officially on notice he is too talented not to be good, even though this movie almost convinced me otherwise. 

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2 out of 4 stars

 


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