“Is it worth paying for a ticket?”: The Neon Demon (2016)

neon_demon_ver7_xxlgNicolas Winding Refn’s most recent directorial effort, The Neon Demon (2016) is a psychological horror tale of a murderous, bloody-minded fashion industry that attracts young Jesse (Elle Fanning) to Los Angeles. Jesse hopes to become a big time fashion model because being pretty is the only talent she knows. She makes fast friends with make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone), but it’s not long before Jessie finds herself targeted by fellow models, Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), given her irresistible beauty.

Nicolas Winding Refn’s films have been a bit of a gamble recently. It’s no secret that his previous film, Only God Forgives (2013), received a limp reception at best. How might The Neon Demon fare, in comparison with Winding Refn’s previous efforts? Might it remind you of the brutal excellence of Drive (2011) or Bronson (2008), or is it more akin to the beautiful emptiness of Only God Forgives?

One of Winding Refn’s great talents is sourcing talent itself, and his ongoing use of Ryan Gosling and Mads Mikkelsen in his films (although they’re not in this one) is evidence of that. The Neon Demon plays host to some good performances, and Elle Fanning in particular is the perfect embodiment of wide-eyed innocence and purity until she realises her power (a quick switch, but a confident and believable one). Abbey Lee’s and Jena Malone’s intense performances are also a highlight, particularly during the more gorey moments, and the little cameo by the beautiful Christina Hendricks as a casting agent for fashion models was a nice surprise. However, we also have Keanu Reeves whose cameo as a plank of wood in the form of a motel owner is kind of painful to watch.

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Aesthetically, The Neon Demon is absolutely gorgeous. Cinematography by Natasha Braier communicates a sense of perfection, slickness, and danger, with scenes so shiny that the light literally bounces off everything, seemingly extending beyond their light sources and into space and time. The colours are bright and beautiful, with many scenes where a light source consists of one colour, conveying danger and tension (see: Argento’s Suspiria (1977)). Some of the sumptuous visuals won’t be new to you if you’ve seen much of Dario Argento (and other giallo films), David Lynch, or Frederico Fellini; there are numerous references to other visually iconic moments in film. But The Neon Demon is so beautiful that you just sink into the visuals as they are provided to you, regardless of their original sources. Austin Gorg must be commended for his work on the art direction. The pared-back electro-synth score by Cliff Martinez also gave me a bunch of 80s-era Stranger Things vibes, which isn’t a bad thing.

Now that I’ve established what I like about the film, it may be useful to discuss the minor moral outrage that I also experienced whilst watching it. The Neon Demon doesn’t so much as express the point that the fashion industry ingests and churns out young women at an alarming rate; it chooses to engage in this act itself. In some ways, the film is almost like a mirror image of what generally goes on for women today (active misogyny, body shaming, gender-based violence, et cetera) set within the frame of the fashion industry. But instead of putting forth any actual messages or making any meaning about this, it’s just out there for us, the voyeurs, to consume in the most beautiful and shallow manner possible. That’s the thing – the story is shallow, and obvious. It has a somewhat shocking ending that can be seen from a mile away. The film doesn’t say anything about anything. Although fortunately, the dialogue isn’t half bad.

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I wonder if I wouldn’t mind this so much if the film took a stand on anything, or if we learned more about the psychology of our main characters. There are some really interesting parts of the film around female power and deadly choices that are so interesting, but unfortunately go completely unexplored. One key moment of the film at its bloody climax also occurs unseen, which is one of the film’s biggest downfalls. Ultimately, without further exploration, the characters in this film are just “nasty women” – jealous, ambitious, angry, beautiful models who aren’t perceived as much else. And between the film’s rapey comments about 13-year-olds (“real Lolita shit”), the gross-out moments with a female corpse, the poisonous messages about female appearance, the general creepy male gaze whenever there’s a naked female body… it just makes for a shallow and frustrating experience that is almost confusing in its lack of meaning.

The Neon Demon is nothing short of a visual and auditory delight, which unfortunately doesn’t amount to much story-wise. It’s a lot like Only God Forgives in that way; beautifully empty. The film has some great performances in Elle Fanning and Abbey Lee, but the story itself and its underlying messages leave something to be desired. It’s worth seeing in the cinema if you really want to be enveloped in the nightmare of its aesthetics, in the darkness, colours, and flashing lights of runway cameras. Otherwise, you can probably wait.

Is it worth paying for a ticket?: Eh. If you’re a cinematography connoisseur, then yes. If not, you can probably wait until it’s released for home viewing.
Watch the trailer here.

18 comments

  1. Great writing. I agree with you on all points, and I think you summed up the movie very well. While watching it, I expected some twist, something not completely obvious since the main character says: “You know what my mother used to call? Dangerous”. The credits rolled in, and I personally felt like I wasted the hours of my life on this. Beautiful cinematography no doubt, though.

    1. Thanks heaps! I’m actually looking forward to a rewatch so I can search to find the meaning I couldn’t grasp this time around. I wish there had been more to that line as well.

  2. Yeah. I waited and rented. I NEEDED to see it but did not enjoy it. Crazy gorgeous though.

    1. I think I enjoyed it on the most surface of levels possible. Which makes me feel a little bit guilty. Still waiting for Refn to deliver something as great as Drive or Bronson.

  3. Hmm. I skimmed the review as I still badly want to see this. Sounds like you were slightly disappointed? I do love a good visual feast, though, so I’ll definitely watch it as soon as I can… : )

    1. I was slightly disappointed, but don’t let that deter you from seeing this! It’s enjoyable in its own way, and probably worth it for the insanely gorgeous creative elements alone.

  4. Interesting review. You say: “The Neon Demon doesn’t so much as express the point that the fashion industry ingests and churns out young women at an alarming rate; it chooses to engage in this act itself.”

    Maybe there is a message in that 😛 There is also a ton of stuff going on for the entire film – if you were to watch the film a few times you’ll get sooo much more out of it, and perhaps find out that the message isn’t about modelling or fashion at all. IMO this is actually Refn’s deepest film, but you really have to watch and listen closely.

    Another thing, Refn intentionally hired two female playwrights to help him write the film, so he could get a female take on the industry – the last thing he wanted was a male’s take on the industry. I’m not a female so I can’t comment if it was misogynistic or not, but that seems to be an accurate representation of that particular industry. If those elements weren’t there it wouldn’t feel right at all.

    Please don’t take this as criticism, I just love discussing film 🙂

    I of course am totally with you on the soundtrack and the cinematography (the DOP was also female I think). Its quite incredible. And the Suspiria reference is extremely apt. What I really want is the soundtrack to this flick!!

    1. Love this comment Jordy! Not taken as criticism at all! 🙂 I’m actually looking forward to seeing the film again to search more thoroughly for the meaning I was missing (and to take in the visuals again). At the moment I’m not convinced about its depth but I’m willing to take another look. Kind of frustrating because there were a lot of great things about it otherwise! I’m really enjoying reading everyone’s different takes on this somewhat divisive film.

      1. Divisive is an understatement! 😛 And yeah, those visuals…. boy, what a treat. Did you know that Refn is actually slightly colour-blind? Interesting considering the amazing colours of his last two films.

        I love your attitude though. A lot of people (on imdb forums usually) would take my comment and say something like “don’t tell me I don’t like the film cos I don’t understand it, you asshole”, hehe, though you are free to say that as well 😉

        And continuing from that, I like that you are keen to see it again. I think the best films are the ones you need to see more than once, and perhaps didn’t rate very high when you first saw it. Personally I know I need to rewatch Revenant and Hateful Eight, as I disliked them both, but have only seen each once. On the other hand, High-Rise I actually saw three times before I really got what it was saying! With that one though, I did enjoy it first time out

        And yeah, I also love hearing others’ in-depth takes on films. Its what I love about film the most, apart from watching them! Talking about them, and hearing differing perspectives, cos we are all different.

        I hope you enjoy your second viewing! There is a lot of symbolic stuff that is there, take it or leave it, but similar to Black Swan it says a lot more than it first appears to IMO.

        Sorry the rant!

  5. Loved the review. Your description of “beautifully empty” fits how I look at a lot of Refn’s stuff. I just can’t get into him as a filmmaker. For that reason I have held back seeing this even though a lot of people love it.

    1. Thanks Keith! 🙂 Refn is a bit hit or miss for me. I loved Drive but his more recent ones have been pretty disappointing. He sure does know how to produce something visually beautiful, though!

  6. I want to see this, but it’s Netflix for me on this one. Good review!

    1. Thanks heaps! 😀 It’s perhaps worth a watch one day. But no rush!

  7. Hi Lauren cool review yo, your thoughts on this film was pretty much similar to what I heard most critics say about this film during its intial release in the cinema and it pretty much told me to stay at home instead, though I was curious about it from the trailer and to see how Elle Fanning fared in the film too.

    1. Thanks heaps Curtis. To her credit, Elle Fanning does very well with what she’s given!

  8. Loved reading your review, even though there are several points on which I disagree. You seem to imply that the film has some moral responsibility to do otherwise that show it as it is: When you say “it’s just out there for us, the voyeurs, to consume in the most beautiful and shallow manner possible. That’s the thing – the story is shallow, and obvious” you overlook the possibility that the film intends to leave the thinking viewer sensing their complicity in the body-shaming image-obsessiveness of the fashion industry. Our perpetual gaze and visual pleasure is the lifeblood of that industry and we are as cannibalistic as it is in our consumption of the female body. The thriller gore twist adds a deliciously parodic layer to a thought-provoking film.

    1. I love that analysis. I’m looking forward to watching this again and viewing it with a different and perhaps less cynical lens!

  9. […] disappointing film released in 2016: The Neon Demon (2016) Although Nicholas Winding Refn directed a supremely beautiful-looking film, it just […]

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