In Review

The Neon Demon

4.5 out of 5 stars
4.5 out of 5 stars - 'Right on the Money'
2016, USA. Horror/Thriller. 118 min.
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Story by Nicolas Winding Refn
Screenplay by Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws, and Polly Stenham
Starring Elle Fanning, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves
Review by

Smash or trash?

Nicolas Winding Refn probably doesn’t care which you choose. My guess is the Danish director is content with you just having the very thought, and the inevitable conversation. Trafficking in drama — boos and derision at Cannes for his last two films — seems to ignite his inner Alejandro Jodorowsky. Better then to just strike a boxing pose on the red carpet, speak in non-sequiturs and smirk.

And so it goes with The Neon Demon.

Elle Fanning stars as Jesse, a doe-eyed up-and-coming model trying to make it in the L.A. fashion scene. Keanu Reaves is the creepy owner of the proverbial flea-bag motel, and, surprisingly, provides some dark, humorous moments. Jena Malone and real life models Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote are Elle’s impressively plastic competition. Refn regular Christina Hendricks has a small role as a talent manager. And Karl Glusman and Desmond Harrington have supporting roles, respectively, as Elle’s boyfriend and photographer.

And Refn?

Well he directs. And you know it. If not because his initials “NWR” sit in small vertical form as the credits open, but also because his signature style is all over the place. Like the oddball Only God Forgives (2013) and landmark Drive (2011) before it, Neon Demon is awash in absolutely gob-smacking visuals. This is a film that looks simply beautiful (cinematography by Natasha Braier). Fitting enough, given the subject matter. “Beauty isn’t the only thing. It’s everything.”

Long-time collaborator Cliff Martinez once again scores. And the results are a knockout. Electronic. Pulsing. Brooding. This soundtrack is the stuff of legend. And along with the incredible cinematography reason enough to want to the watch the film again.

Elle Fanning - The Neon Demon Review
Elle Fanning in ‘The Neon Demon’. This modeling life is killing me.

As for the story, well, remember Refn likes to surround himself with controversy. He also adores symbolism. And allegory. So it’s no surprise that Neon Demon plays like a quasi-mix of Grimm Brothers for adults and a 90-minute perfume commercial. It’s hard to say for sure. Except when NWR likes to get literal. So, yes L.A. (or New York?) is brutal. So competitive, in fact, that this town will surely eat you alive. Surely.

So about that ending.

It’s fantastic. I read somewhere that the script was altered, and the finale re-written. Apparently it was made up, on the fly, on the set. Take it in a dreamy, Lynchian context, and it works. To say more would be to give it away, though one of the film’s most luscious, mesmerizing scenes takes place when the three female rivals (all who manage to get topless by the end) revel in their kill. To see Jena Malone’s gaze, and subsequent actions is to see something equally bizarre, beautiful. No one would ever accuse Nicolas Winding Refn of cowering in the face of creative risk.

As we might expect, Refn reaches across decades of work for influence. Aside from plenty of Jodorowsky-like stylized compositions and symbolism, in the color palette I see Dario Argento, most notably the reds and purples so prevalent in cult classic (and personal favorite) Suspiria (1977). Shut your eyes partially and you might even feel a bit of the vibe found in something like Under the Skin (2013). As Elle Fanning’s character becomes increasingly insulated in the seedy hotel and subject to sexual predators, it’s hard not to recall Polanski and Repulsion (1965). And, as she becomes the “it” girl you can’t help but think of Natalie Portman’s ascent (or is that descent?) in Black Swan (2010).

The Neon Demon Film Review 2016
I’m Dangerous, and a whiz at Geometry.

Speaking of Black Swan, is it mere coincidence that actor Alessandro Nivola (who goes uncredited, despite receiving a fair amount of on-screen time), bares more than a passing resemblance to auteur Darren Aronofsky? With a small, neatly trimmed mustache, his mannerisms as the hot-shot fashion designer seem like a bit of arthouse trolling. If so, yes, it was perfect too.

The Neon Demon is not a film you merely watch. To abide by the oft-cited cliche, rather this is something you experience. I suspect that’s largely why Refn has amassed a rabid and loyal following. You know as soon as the lights go down, you’re about to see something different, something unique. How welcome. In this era of endless reboots and tired comic book adaptations and sequels, thank goodness there are wonderful, challenging (The Lobster) and quirky indie films out there. The rebirth of TV is great, but for me cinema is forever king.

Think of The Neon Demon as a giant glitter ball. Dipped in blood and lit up with LED laser beams. With plastic models. Duran Duran, re-issued as a film.

So what to make of Neon Demon?

On first viewing, my reaction was the same as when I watched the anti-Drive known as Only God Forgives: ugh. I was bored. Kind of annoyed. And, of course, confused. But, then, I watched the film again. And like OGF, liked it that much better. On a third viewing (with my wife, who, surprisingly, liked the film… despite Refn’s occasional “juvenile tendencies”) I came to love it. Now, it’s on my regular viewing list alongside other re-watchable favorites like Black Swan, Under the Skin, The Tenant, Suspiria, Under the Skin, and Videodrome.

Abbey Lee
Abbey Lee: Let me guess, you’re going to make me show my boobs aren’t you? Refn: Yes.

That my opinion of The Neon Demon morphed over repeated viewings reminds me of one of U2’s masterworks. Achtung Baby was released in 1991 on planet earth. But it may well have come from outer space. It’s easy to forget now, in this age when Apple jammed U2 product down our throats like it or not, that then U2 was embracing Americana and grass roots and B.B. King (Rattle and Hum). But “The Fly”? Bono in leather pants and shades, spinning around on the video to “The Real Thing”? This was a long way from the streets of Ireland. I too recall thinking Achtung Baby was disappointing, an unfortunate misstep. For some reason, though, I bought a remote from Radio Shack, and programmed it to turn on my 6-disc changer changer to wake me up each morning to the CD. Ah, an industrial start to the day! I’m ready. Ready for the laughing gas. Sure enough, it got better and better with each listen — there was endless layers, richness, texture. And, now of course, it alongside The Joshua Tree (1987) is widely regarded as one of the two U2 masterpieces.

San Francisco Arts & Culture news, stories, videosNWR: Ranking the Director’s Recent Work

Note: go see Refn’s debut Pusher and its sequel. Fabulous work from the streets of Copenhagen. World’s apart from his style today, but every bit as compelling.

Drive (2011)
5 out of 5 stars
A straight-out 80’s inspired adrenaline rush with arthouse flair (that final duel between Ryan Gosling and Al Brooks!).

Only God Forgives (2013)
4.5 out of 5 stars
Cinematography extraordinaire. Grows on you. Santa Sangre II.

The Neon Demon (2016)
4.5 out of 5 stars
Bergman it is not. And that’s the point. Delicious eye candy, vapor thin storyline and characters. L.A. anyone? For a less surreal version of trying to make it in the big city, also see superb indie Starry Eyes (2014). Black Swan (2010) is still the gold standard and a 21st century cinematic masterpiece.

Will The Neon Demon enjoy a similar fate, getting better over time, with repeated viewings?

Hard to say. Time will tell. If anything, I expect it to take its place alongside horror/thriller/sci-fi/arthouse classics that have found adoring niche audiences over the years: Holy Mountain, Suspiria, Blue Velvet, PossessionRepulsion, Eraserhead, The Sentinel (1977 version) and just about anything by Brian De Palma (who also loved slow motion and buckets of blood).

Neon Demon isn’t made for mainstream consumption; fortunately for all of us who enjoy a trippy experience. It’s an uncompromising work, and I’m happy to report, the anti-thesis of Hollywood’s broken and uninspired studio system.

Don’t worry — you’re unlikely to poke an eye out watching this thing, and at best you’ll come away wickedly satiated. Think of The Neon Demon as a giant glitter ball. Dipped in blood and lit up with LED laser beams. With plastic models. Layers of cool electronica. A mountain lion for good measure (and the trailer!). And those initials: NWR. This is quite possibly Duran Duran re-imaged for the 21st century.

Surreal perfume commercial? A masterclass in neon geometry? 80’s music video from Neptune?

Yes, yes, and yes. All good.

I’m going with smash.

(And, yes, I’ve already bought a strobe light for upcoming Stark Insider videos.)

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