THE NEON DEMON
By Liz Casanova
Starring Elle Fanning, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves and Jena Malone
Written by Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Running time 1h 57min
MPAA Rating R
Selig Film Rating Full Price
On the surface The Neon Demon translates to a film saturated with visual indulgence that lacks any real substance. The first half hour is a painful build as the main character Jesse (Elle Fanning) assimilates in the competitive world of modeling. Her experience in Los Angeles includes getting to know all the players in the high fashion industry. The advantage Jesse has is that she is fresh-faced and practically screams "virgin" with her ethereal presence. This opens doors for her career but also invites trouble.
In anyone else's hands this film would be a vapid product with the occasional violence and nudity to keep mild interest. And, yes, there is plenty of that in The Neon Demon. But director and co-writer Nicolas Winding Refn is an artist and, as an artist, forces a virile reaction to the powerful images and situations he presents. The story uncovers the duality of the physical beauty of the models and the underground ugliness (and truth) of the industry. The core theme being that beauty is a commodity.
Jesse arrives into the picture as an innocent in the jungle that is LA. All the other characters in this theater want something from her or want to be her. Slowly, and with effortless methodology, these characters start chipping away at the veneer of purity, until Jesse becomes intoxicated with her own power. An interesting element is that the players around her are aware of the game. They acknowledge that she is desired. Some, like the models Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), try to destroy it. And others, like talent agent Jan (Christina Hendricks) and makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone), are the vehicles to aid in Jesse's career success.
There are obvious reasons why The Neon Demon is a horror film. Without dropping any spoilers, trust that this film has a level of violence that is visually shocking but elegant. As intense as some of these scenes are, the real horror is the level of hatred and depravity of some of these characters, again, based on the truth of the industry. Funny how society winks and nods at how progressive it has become when it comes to feminism, equal rights and civility, but there is still is the truth of how primal instincts can emerge in a competitive environment. If it wasn't true, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg wouldn't have launched "Together Women Can", a non-profit that promotes women supporting women. And, of course, there is also the horror of how even the people who appear to seem supportive take a piece of Jesse's soul.
Back to other reasons why this film is a masterpiece. Visually enough can't be said of how NWR and cinematographer Natasha Braier (The Rover and XXY) use the natural artificial backdrop of LA and a neon world rich with stark color to get the audience closer to the horror. It feels gritty and ugly and dark even when it's beautiful. The music by Cliff Martinez (Drive) is also necessary for the artificial environment. It's a stripped down electronic that is similar to to binaural and isochronic tones. The induced relaxation is an interesting choice.
The casting choices are perfect. Fanning has so much depth for someone so young. But she dominates her scenes quietly. And this might be Malone's best role. There are choices her character makes that can only be executed by an actor who is truly free and accepts it without any hints of reservations. There is also a nice appearance by Keanu Reeves who plays a shady motel manager. Even the models were impressive. This is also a testament to NWR's ability to bring out something raw and incredible from his actors.
The Neon Demon isn't for the thin skinned. I recommend this to anyone who has an open mind and can handle taboo situations and some gore. It's better digested (this is all going to be funny after you watch the film) in the theater.