I remember when I liked Nicolas Winding Refn. I loved Bronson. I loved Drive. But Only God Forgives… not so much.
I know that the film is highly divisive, with people who either adore the movie or loathe it with not much of anyone in between. I was personally in the camp who HATED Only God Forgives, and I’m still finding shrapnel in my stool three years later for my review of it.
Given that Refn only directed the former two films and wrote/directed the latter film, maybe that’s the trick. It’s entirely possible that Refn is far better when he only has to either write or direct instead of trying to do both at the same time. Or maybe he’s just not a very good writer, I dunno.
Anyway, we now have The Neon Demon, in which Refn directs and shares screenplay credit with debut writers Mary Laws and Polly Stenham. Refn apparently let someone else write the script at some point, which looked like a good sign.
But then I saw the trailer and noticed a strange “NWR” marking below the title. It took me a long time to figure out what that was. Because I didn’t even think it was possible for any filmmaker to be so outrageously pretentious that he’d brand a film with his goddamn initials. But sure enough, the film opened and there were the same stylized initials of N.W. Refn all through the opening credits. It’s bad enough that we have self-aggrandizing assholes like Tyler Perry sticking their names in the titles of their films, as if director/writer/producer/actor/whatever credits weren’t enough to satisfy their egos and imply to the audience that the whole movie sprang from one person’s head. But then Refn had to go and think about how to take that to another level.
(Side note: This has become pretty common in pop music nowadays as well. For instance, did you notice how Jason Derulo opens every one of his songs by singing his own name? Like we have to be reminded what his name is?)
This guy monogrammed his movie. The guy made a brand logo out of his own initials — as if he was a production company unto himself — and then smeared that logo all over the opening credits alongside the names of everyone else who helped make this movie possible. Of all the masturbatory, arrogant, obnoxious, narcissistic, preposterous bullshit. Just how far up his own ass has Refn crawled?
The film tells the story of Jesse (Elle Fanning), a fresh-faced and naive ingenue who’s just arrived in L.A. to leave her past behind and achieve her dreams of supermodel stardom. What follows is your basic story about the rise and fall of a young woman who becomes a victim of her own success after she’s worked so hard to achieve it. This amid commentary about standards of beauty, the ruthless nature of show business, the immoral dealings and physical traumas that it takes to get ahead, the value and ephemeral nature of youth, and so on and so forth.
(Side note: No, I have no idea why the character’s name is given the masculine spelling. I swear, that isn’t my mistake.)
You already have a rough picture of our protagonist and her development arc. In our supporting cast, you’ve got Ruby (Jena Malone), a makeup artist who serves as Jesse’s new best friend; Gigi (Bella Heathcote), a model who’s only friendly so long as Jesse knows her place; Sarah (Abbey Lee), who’s a stone-cold bitch; a fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola) obsessed with beauty; Hank (Keanu Reeves), a womanizing asshole; and so on. But my favorite has to be Dean (Karl Glusman), a potential love interest who also serves as a voice for Jesse’s conscience. You know from the outset that the moment Jesse gets her fame and fortune, she’s going to drop his ass hard enough to leave cracks in the pavement. And sure enough, that’s exactly what happens.
All of this is predictable ground that’s already been covered way too many times. It was covered in Showgirls, for God’s sake, and with about as much subtlety. But despite how much of this film is old and threadbare, the filmmakers still bring a lot to the table.
One example concerns the moon, which is used as a recurring motif. I don’t think it’s ever raised as an explicit point, but the inconstant moon that monthly changes in her circled orb serves as a fitting symbol for the ephemeral, waxing and waning nature of beauty. There’s also a great deal of vampiric imagery, though none of the characters are ever explicitly shown to be actual vampires. The models in this film (Jesse, in particular) offer up their beauty so that it may be molded according to the wishes of the photographer, the costume designer, etc. But then there are those who seek to take the models by force, as if to take that natural radiance for themselves. This can be done through sexual assault, through physical injury, or — in this film’s case — through ingesting the model’s flesh and lifeblood.
But then we have my personal favorite. There’s a character in this film who works as a mortician, dressing up corpses for their funerals. Just think about that. We’re all so obsessed with beauty that there’s an entire industry full of professionals who are specially trained to make people look good when they’re just going to be put in the ground forever. It’s the living who have to deal with aging, heartbreak, jealousy, betrayal, and all the other slings and arrows of outrageous fortune while the dead get to stay peaceful and beautiful forever. And there’s a character who envies the dead for this specific reason.
And yes, I’m specifically talking about necrophilia. The movie goes there. It’s really quite heartbreaking, in a horribly gut-wrenching and fucked-up kind of way.
Moving onto the cast, it should go without saying that the film rests pretty much entirely on Elle Fanning. The character was clearly written to be Aphrodite incarnate, the unobtainable ideal that any woman would spend years of hard work just to be a second-rate copy of. By definition, there’s no way any young woman could ever hope to truly embody that, but in this picture, Fanning comes close enough to suspend disbelief. Plus, Fanning does an incredible job of portraying the character’s development from wide-eyed and naive to stone-cold and confident, all while portraying a kind of reserved strength that may or may not be a bluff. She carries the film so beautifully, in fact, that the film noticeably drags when she isn’t onscreen.
Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, and Abbey Lee were all perfectly chosen for their respective roles, all incredible beauties fluent in passive-aggressive verbal takedowns. It also helps that they are perfectly willing to go utterly batshit crazy as the plot descends into madness. Christina Hendricks appears for only one scene, but she nails it (in spite of the wretched dialogue she had to work with) and she looks more gorgeous than she has in years. Alas, the male costars don’t fare nearly as well. Keanu Reeves is trying his hardest, but his casting was a very odd choice that’s way too distracting. And as for Karl Glusman… eesh. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a male romantic lead so bland and boring and lacking in charisma since… well, since Fanning played Sleeping Beauty, come to think of it.
But what really keeps this film watchable is the opening shot. No, seriously.
The film opens with Jesse draped over a couch, completely still and lifeless, drenched in blood. Regardless of whether or not she’s really dead, that’s the image that sets the tone for the rest of the film. Moreover, the film is all about characters who will push themselves and each other past the physical, emotional, spiritual, psychological limit in the pursuit of greatness and eternal youth. So there’s every possibility that someone is going to cross a line, either through violence, drug addiction, sexual assault, or God knows what else.
Throw in that opening shot of a bloody young woman, and that possibility becomes an inevitability. One way or another, whether literal or metaphorical, there’s always the implicit promise that there will be blood. And in a film from someone as bold and depraved as Refn, that catastrophe could turn out to be something truly soul-rending when it finally comes. And without giving too much away, I’ll say that Refn certainly doesn’t disappoint.
That opening shot — and several other teases of something wicked approaching — kept me on the edge of my seat, eager to see what happened next. Needless to say, that’s a huge credit to the film.
But then we have the visuals. Every frame of this film is gorgeous, with some dazzling use of neon colors and creative strobe-like effects. Not every scene is shot in such a harsh way — and thank God for that — but the strategic use of lens flares adds a neat visual touch to some of the more mundane scenes.
Also, I have to give some major kudos to production designer Elliott Hostetter, costume designer Erin Benach, and makeup designer Erin Ayanian. So much of this movie depends on fashion that all three of them had to be at the absolute top of their game for the film to work, and they all deliver superbly. Cliff Martinez is another MVP behind the scenes, delivering a synth-heavy score that’s glamorous in a dark and creepy sort of way, which perfectly suits the mood of the film.
On a miscellaneous note, I feel like I should probably address the nudity content, since that will most likely be a factor for plenty of filmgoers. To start with, there is absolutely zero nudity from Elle Fanning. None. Which is really quite a mercy, since she’s playing a character who’s only sixteen. I know there have been a few gossip rag headlines about Fanning’s “sex scene” with Jena Malone, but without giving too much away, those reports are so overblown it isn’t remotely funny. A few other actresses do get various kinds of naked, but only in the film’s closing minutes.
Ultimately, The Neon Demon is very much like its subject matter: Impossibly beautiful in a blatantly artificial way, completely heartless and mean-spirited with a wicked and demented sense of humor, unapologetically trashy, you get the idea. The vast majority of the film covers threadbare topics that have been done to death since All About Eve, the characters are all barely developed, and the plot takes a long time to deliver on the promise of that opening shot. But the more shocking and incisive moments are worth the wait. The dazzling style and dreamlike logic are also considerable factors.
There are enough good things about this film that I can give it a recommendation, but only to those who are up for it. This isn’t a movie for the faint of heart, and it’s not a film for the unprepared. Refn is bold, he’s brash, and he doesn’t seem to give the slightest fuck what anybody else thinks about him. For better or worse, that’s a huge part of what defines his movies and it’s a key reason why people either love him or hate him. That’s not going to change anytime soon, and in all honesty, I wouldn’t want it to.