The Neon Demon (2016), visually stunning, morally reprehensible, and emotionally traumatic.
MY CALL: Intense, beautiful, artificial, dangerous…and ultimately BRUTAL. Difficult to explain—but even as a fan of brutal films, I’d say I “appreciated” this movie a lot more than I “enjoyed” it. MORE MOVIES LIKE The Neon Demon: Above all, Drive (2011) and Antichrist (2009). Also maybe Black Swan (2010) and Starry Eyes (2014).
Drive (2011) was an excellent yet soul-rattling film of sociopathy-laced catharsis; an intense, sensory, noirish tale so tone-sensitive that one would hardly notice the plot. I loved it! Director and writer Nicolas Winding Refn (Valhalla Rising, Drive, Only God Forgives) embarks on a similarly disorienting journey when an aspiring model moves to Los Angeles only to have her youth and vitality devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will take any means necessary to possess what she has.
Scintillating from the first minute, the colors are vibrant and the score enchanting—somehow feeling gorgeous yet totally artificial. Every effort is made to test our morality while taunting our senses, as if True Blood glamoring us. Like Charlie or Alice, at first impressed by the magical wonders of Wonderland and Willy Wonka’s factory, only to eventually reveal their true nature; their dangers.
Imagine the prettiest teenage girl from a small Idaho town. She’s probably the “Potato Princess” in the Cadillac for the 4th of July parade and perpetually told her beauty would take her far in life and far from this little old town. Fresh off the bus to Los Angeles and full of youth, beauty and naivete, Jesse (Elle Fanning; Super 8, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) is a young model succumbing to the most avant-garde artists’ whims. Like a black lamb centering a snowy field, her stark innocence is readily apparent to the ever-vigil predatory denizens of the tree line preparing for the slaughter. She is marinaded with compliments, if only to prepare her fair flesh for rending.
Some of the imagery and dialogue is coarse, with tongues sharpened. Despite the lovely strobe-lit iridescence you can’t help but to momentarily react as if a small piece of metal had struck glass. Perhaps aiming for a brutally honest revelation behind the curtain of the Los Angeles fashion industry, we find ourselves in blunt and shallow waters where we may encounter the kindest compliment one moment, only to be followed by a scathing remark the next—however, both delivered with a glimmering smile as if the speaker equally found pleasure in both. Ah, Los Angeles—where small town girls’ big dreams come to die…or, more honestly put, to be crucified.
Pleasant and candid, Ruby (Jena Malone; Sucker Punch, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire & The Mockingjay) seems to actually care for Jesse’s well-being…but her intentions will be tested as the viewer comes to suspect everyone of foul play. Rounding out the cast, Abbey Lee (Mad Max: Fury Road, Gods of Egypt) and Bella Heathcote (Dark Shadows, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) play immensely shallow models, Christina Hendricks (Drive, Mad Men) has a brief but wonderful role at the modeling agency, Jesse’s landlord is strangely played by Keanu Reeves (John Wick, 47 Ronin, Man of Tai Chi), and Desmond Harrington (Wrong Turn, Dexter) is an enigmatic photographer who is ghoulishly gaunt and enthralled in his own art.
A great many themes run amok in the third act. Among such concepts are voyeurism, homicidally erotic shower scenes, bloody nudity, murderous models, strangely urinating in the moonlight, macabre vomit, gory self-mutilation, suicide, consuming thy enemy, and a diversity of severe mental illness.
This film observes Jesse’s rapid social degeneration, and her downward spiral finds peril in others’ jealousy and attraction to her. The treacherous journey endures forced sexual advances, necrophilia, fixations leading to murderous behavior, a brutal fall from grace, and a blood of virgins finale.
This film may not paint the modeling industry in a positive light, but it is serenely shot with a fleeting sense of reality. Like a model, many of the shots are perfect and beautiful. But like the industry, the waters are shallow yet dangerous.
Highly recommended for fans of brutal, nourish films like Drive (2011).