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Midvale Journal

Dan's Review: "The Neon Demon" possessed by hubris

Jun 27, 2016 12:07AM ● By Dan Metcalf

Elle Fanning in The Neon Demon – © 2016 – Amazon Studios

The Neon Demon (Amazon Studios)

Rated R for disturbing violent content, bloody images, graphic nudity, a scene of aberrant sexuality, and language.

Starring Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Desmond Harrington, Alessandro Nivola, Charles Baker, Jamie Clayton, Chris Muto.

Written by Mary Laws, Nicolas Winding Refn, Polly Stenham.

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn.



I recall Willem Dafoe’s characterization of Carson Clay, the self-absorbed film director from Mr. Bean’s Holiday. He’s an auteur; a man aware of his own cinematic genius, a man whose name inspires mawkish reactions from true connoisseurs, as if watching his films makes you all the more clever than the popcorn-gobbling commoners. Nicolas Winding Refn seems like the living embodiment of this kind of character, to the point that the opening title of his latest film The Neon Demon even bears the “NWR” monogram, as if such initials are telling us something of the quality of the cinema we’re about to experience. Refn’s Drive (2011) received all sorts of praise from heady critics (while recognizing some high-quality imagery, pacing and cinematography, I didn’t like is as much as others), while 2013’s Only God Forgives polarized the film community.

The Neon Demon isn’t your standard narrative film, relying on a lot of audio/visual metaphors over linear storytelling. It’s the tale of Jesse (Elle Fanning), a beautiful young girl who left her small town to seek stardom as a fashion model in southern California. After her first test shoot, Jesse is befriended by makeup artist Ruby (Jenna Malone), who invites her to an upscale cocktail party where she meets two narcissistic models named Sara and Gigi (Abby Lee and Bella Heathcoate). Jesse is also courted by Dean (Karl Glushman), the young photographer from her test shoot. While waiting for her big fashion break, Jesse lives in the dilapidated motel where the heartless and perverted manager Hank (Keanu Reeves) keeps a close eye on her and other star struck kids stay in hopes of making it big. After going for a drive with Dean one night, Jesse returns to her motel room to find a cougar inside. The next day, Jesse attends a casting call with Roberta (Christina Hendricks) and is offered her big shot at stardom. She is photographed by powerful fashion artist “Mikey” (Charles Baker), and chosen to close for a major fashion show, much to the envy of Sara and Gigi. During the show, Jesse is overcome and seduced by her own beauty, which alters her personality from an aspiring waif to a self-centered predator. Her hubris invokes the ire of Ruby (who is sexually attracted to her) and Sara and Gigi, who have gruesome plans to bring her down.

The Neon Demon is not a film for anyone who enjoys a linear narrative. It’s also not for anyone who is squeamish about sex, gore, necrophilia, language or films made by self-absorbed cinematic auteurs. It’s a movie full of metaphors meant to depict the lure of fame and beauty, along with the predatory nature of those who possess both. It’s sort of like a perfume commercial, except the models are into cannibalism and other strange vices.

Nicolas Winding Refn is a talented artist (like he’d let us forget) and his style has a certain appeal. If you enjoy that kind of cinema art, then The Neon Demon is for you.

If not, avoid it like the Devil.

The Neon Demon Trailer