Review: The Neon Demon (2016)

The Neon Demon
2016

© Amazon Studios / Broad Green Pictures

© Amazon Studios / Broad Green Pictures

Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn released his directorial debut in 1999, garnering success for his Pusher trilogy as well as the criminally under-seen Bronson, but it wasn't until his 2011 venture Drive that he made a splash with American audiences as well as myself. That Ryan Gosling starrer introduced me to Refn's stylized hyper-violence with an eye for arthouse flair, and I've noticed that the majority of his films revolve around incredibly masculine characters placed in situations rife with gritty brutality. For most of his career, he has played within the confines of this blueprint, and for the most part, it has worked in his favor. His newest film, however, takes a bit of a stark turn away from his comfort zone by delving into the feminine psyche for the first time. 

The Neon Demon follows Jesse (Elle Fanning), a down-home Southern girl who left home to look for fame and fortune in the Los Angeles modeling and fashion scene. Her natural good looks garner attention from a large modeling agency, and Jesse starts on the fast track to fashion stardom, much to the chagrin of former "it" girls Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee). Jesse befriends makeup stylist Ruby (Jena Malone) who begins to help her navigate the modeling world amidst struggles with her young beau Dean (Karl Glusman) and her blossoming career. 

The film opens with a title sequence that illustrates two aspects of the film working on the opposite ends of the effectiveness spectrum. We immediately hear the gratingly dulcet tones of Cliff Martinez's incredible score, for which he won top honors at the Cannes Film Festival. The arrangement initially elicits tones that hearken back to the schlocky B movies of the '50s before slowly transitioning to a more synthesizer-oriented sound that feels more like a throwback to slasher-elements of 1980s horror. From the start, the score helps work as a sign of foreboding, cleverly introducing the audience to the idea that The Neon Demon is, in fact, a horror film. Sadly, the score proves to be the only redeemable moment of the opening titles that drag for nearly four minutes before we're finally allowed to enter the story. This snail's pace introduction sets the stage for the rest of the film that feels every minute of its nearly two-hour runtime. 

You've seen this story before: a young girl comes to Hollywood looking for fame and fortune only to be caught in the dark and twisted webs spun by the very industry in which she wants to succeed. Refn changes the game a little bit here by allowing Jesse to enter the modeling world as the next big star. We quickly see Fanning's character toss the sheepishness aside as she begins to understand the true value of her natural beauty in a world filled with collagen and plastic. Refn gives his leading lady a leg up in this story, serving her fame and fortune on a silver-lined platter. This rise to greatness feels so easy that we begin to wonder just how and when everything will fall apart. 

The younger Fanning sister excels as the leading character here, fully realizing Jesse's character arc over the course of the film. I have long been a fan of the both her and her older sister Dakota, but I have always thought that Elle was the better actor despite her recent less-than-stellar choices. I first saw her in 2008's Phoebe in Wonderland where ability to generate emotion as a young child actor completely blew me away. The Neon Demon signals her transition from child star to adult actor, and we see that process of growing up occur over the course of the film. She handles it all incredibly well, building a seemingly sympathetic character that grows in confidence and power with each passing moment. Jena Malone also does well with her character, although at times she does seem a bit out of place. As the film progresses, the focus shifts from one character to another in rapid succession, and we get a few minutes centered on Malone's Ruby, but it wasn't quite enough for me to buy into the character completely. Sadly, the inclusion of Keanu Reeves as a shady motel manager feels like a complete misstep, and his over-the-top antics in his limited screen-time are borderline laughable. The rest of the cast fills out nicely - be on the watch for a strong couple of scenes from an uncredited Alessandro Nivola - but The Neon Demon is really Fanning's attempt at a breakout, grown-up performance. 

The inherent problem with The Neon Demon lies in its accessibility. The basic idea of the story is there, but this is by no means a plot-driven film. Jesse's arc directly affects how the people around her act, and certain situations are set into play as a result. For those of you reliant on plot, you may want to leave The Neon Demon be. In its place, Refn adds his signature visual style that offers a colorful and out there movie-going experience. In one moment, we may feel we know the direction of the film, but as soon as the neon lights start to flash in an almost end-of-2001 manner, it can be a tad bit jarring. Still, the visual aspects of the film - along with Martinez's score - prove to be the most effective pieces; director of photography Natasha Braier had her hands full in crafting a true Refn experience, but she definitely hits the nail on the head. 

A slew of moments from The Neon Demon have continued to sit in the forefront of my consciousness since the end credits ran, and I feel as though I'll be sitting and chewing on this one for quite a while. In the past day, I've already started to warm up to Nicolas Winding Refn's latest venture as I slowly start to piece together some of the far-strung connective tissue. I do have a few words of warning, however. This is by no means a wholly accessible film. If you're game for an arthouse horror flick, then give this one a shot; otherwise, you might be better off letting this one slip under your radar. The final act also features a few moments of gore, so the squeamish or the faint of heart may also want to avoid this particular venture. As for me, I'll continue to sit and ponder the stakes surrounding the price of beauty and the ultimate process of succumbing to The Neon Demon.