The Neon Demon (2016) / Drama-Horror
MPAA Rated: R for disturbing violent content, bloody images, graphic nudity, a scene of aberrant sexuality, and language
Running Time: 117 min.
Cast: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Karl Glusman, Keanu Reeves, Desmond Harrington
Small role: Christina Hendricks
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Screenplay: Nicolas Winding Refn
Review published June 26, 2016
Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives) directs this intriguing but ultimately disappointing macabre look at the modeling industry in Los Angeles. Life's not all it appears from the glitz and the glamour we see in the print ads and the commercials. Refn paints the world of the model as full of users, abusers, and with rivalries to stay relevant in being the latest and hottest beauty in the industry that causes jealousy, envy and malice from those who begin to be overlooked for newer, younger, and fresher faces.
Elle Fanning (Trumbo, The Boxtrolls) stars as Jesse, an awkward and innocent 16-year-old who arrives from out of state and takes up residence at a fleabag motel in Pasadena, hoping to kick start a career as a model within a decadent version of Los Angeles as her beauty is the only marketable asset she has. During a promo shoot, she becomes friends with a make-up artist named Ruby (Malone, Mockingjay Part 2), who introduces her to other models in the industry, though on the down side, where their age begins to show, and plastic surgery is employed to squeeze a few more years out before they're no longer wanted in front of the camera. Not much of a worry for Jesse, who is such a natural beauty and has a certain "thing" that those looking for models instantly see. As Jesse's star is on the rise, she becomes aware of the qualities she possesses in her beauty. Others see it too, especially her rivals, which brings forth a certain power to her position, as well as a certain danger.
As with the stereotype of models in general, Refn's main characters feel like mere dolls for him to move here and there as needed in order to deliver his over lengthy metaphor for the ravenous appetites, backstabbing, and cannibalism that goes on within the beauty industry. Characters look in mirrors at themselves, and at each other through them, always keeping the visages of their own beauty in mind, drawing forth their own strength and sense of identity from what they see, which generally is also what draws others toward them. When someone utters the axiom, "Beauty isn't everything; it's the only thing", during the course of the movie, it might hold true for the fashion industry, but it most certainly doesn't in the filmmaking industry, as, at some point, we need characters to be rooted in and storyline that intrigues us enough to want to follow to conclusion. All Refn keeps throwing at us are shots meant to attract or repulse us on a purely visceral level and not much more than that. Also, given that Elle Fanning is supposed to be so alluring that even seasoned industry professionals all stop to take notice somehow doesn't translate to anything we see on the screen -- she's pretty, but nothing about her seems transcendent in terms of being the pinnacle of innocence and pureness in beauty the way the film often implies.
Many will draw parallels to another film about highly competitive artists working within a realm that, from all outside appearance, is admired for its beauty, Black Swan. Indeed, both Black Swan and The Neon Demon dip on a few occasions into the realm of horror in their brutal, surreal, often nightmarishly gory images. The main problem The Neon Demon versus the far superior Black Swan is that we have no identity with any of the characters or an interest in their stories, so that when the plot, such as it is, goes off into the twilight zone, we remain completely detached from them, unable to draw out much meaning from the character connections to the images because we don't know or care enough about them as people to try to decipher meaning to their existence.
As the very stylized The Neon Demon draws closer to its climax, Refn begins to draw out a few Lynch-ian attempts to shock the audience with some unsavory images and generally taboo occurrences that I won't spoil here except to say that most people in the viewing audience will find repugnant to a large degree. They are not necessarily gratuitous, as they are very much in keeping the the metaphors explored, but they are also a bit too literal, to the point where the story, which had been already held together in a thinly defined and superficial way, can't support such heavy-handed developments. Where we are supposed to feel an emotional gut punch, we merely get a queasy feeling in the pit of our stomachs at the display, independent of their relative payoff to the overall themes of the film.
There's a certain irony to the film's theme of narcissism and vanity when the director seems enamored of himself and his own importance. Refn brands his initials, "NWR", right on display throughout the opening credits for all of us to ponder, as if we're supposed to be magnetized by the fact that the story we're about to see is by a great artist, much like the way fashion designers imprint their own monograms on their clothing lines. It is a pretty film, with vivid fluorescent colors (some will draw allusions to the works of horror-maestro Dario Argento) set to throbbing electronic music, and a collection of beautiful actors who look good staring off into either the camera, the mirrors, or just nothingness. However, the nihilism of the film is oppressive, and the amount of time that it wastes pushing forward an uninteresting story at a glacial pace in order to go to arrive at a place that many will have been expecting all along (save for a couple of "shocking" moments) is the biggest hindrance to the enjoyment of the overall work.
Perhaps if this were a 30-minute story in an anthology horror film or TV show, it might be considered brilliant, or, at least, interesting, but at about two hours in length, and given that most of the film was improvised in the moment, it feels a like an awful lot of fat to put on a story that is waif-thin and expect it to be successful. Beauty may indeed be an ugly business, but, as so often said, beauty is also fleeting. At nearly two hours in length, The Neon Demon stays well past its prime.
©2016 Vince Leo