Review: The Neon Demon (2016)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #663

Number of Views: One
Release Date: 24 June 24, 2016
Sub-Genre: Psychological Horror
Country of Origin: France, Denmark, United States
Budget: $7,000,000
Box Office: $3,400,000
Running Time: 117 minutes
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Producers: Lene Børglum, Nicolas Winding Refn
Screenplay: Mary Laws, Nicolas Winding Refn, Polly Stenham
Special Effects: Ruth Haney, Kristy Horiuchi, Dean Jones, Ashlyn McIntyre
Visual Effects: Peter Hjorth, Shant Jordan
Cinematography: Natasha Braier
Score: Cliff Martinez
Editing: Matthew Newman
Studios: Gaumont Film Company, Wild Bunch, Space Rocket Nation, Vendian Entertainment, Bold Films
Distributors: Amazon Studios, Broad Green Pictures, Scanbox Entertainment, The Jokers
Stars: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Desmond Harrington, Alessandro Nivola, Charles Baker, Jamie Clayton, Houda Shretah

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] Julian Winding “Demon Dance”
[2] Cliff Martinez “Neon Demon”
[3] Sweet Tempest “Mine”
[4] Cliff Martinez “Runway”
[5] Sia “Waving Goodbye”

I’ve never really been one for fashion. Indeed I find the suggestion that “this season’s colors are popping fuchsia and zingy yellow” more than vaguely fascist. I mean, who comes up with this poppycock and what makes their shit stink any less than the rest of ours anyhoots? Granted, I may think better of doubling up on denim or wearing brown toweling socks with open-toe sandals, but have arrived at these conclusions all on my own. This isn’t to suggest that I don’t take pride in my appearance, more that it’s “my appearance” and not subject to change just because it doesn’t fit in with what’s deemed presentable. Nevertheless, I’m fully aware that the global textile and garment industry alone is currently worth almost $3,000 trillion, so clearly I’m in the minority here.

Then we have catwalk models, and is it just me, or do they all appear mildly overwrought? Asked to walk in heels that wouldn’t look out-of-place in the circus, vomit after every meal, and hold painful poses until which point as they’ve been sufficiently objectified; they just don’t seem at ease with the dynamic. Perhaps it has something to do with standing vulnerable before a photographer, doused in quart upon quart of oil and water, while they figure out what suggestion would make you feel most uncomfortable. And maybe it doesn’t help that the competition appear almost reptilian, the kind of snakes who’d eat their own tails just for the nutritional value, and spit venom the moment your back’s turned. There’s no state pension waiting for you at your career’s end; rejection will be as swift as it is merciless. Then what is left? Washed up by your early twenties, no longer the princess of the ball, and still with just enough in pocket change for a few hits of crystal meth and the ultimate in closure.

Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn has been a servant of cinema for over twenty years now and more recently has graduated to an altogether different class. The electro-fetish noir of Drive and Only God Forgives has now become his calling card and this has led to him shedding the skin of a mere genre filmmaker and slipping into the snazzier robes of full-blown auteur. His latest “vanity project”, The Neon Demon, commences with the initials NWR emblazoned across the screen and such self-anointed branding displays an arrogance he’s fully entitled to. Far be it from him to rest on his laurels and that is why he continues to push himself into uncharted territory almost as though daring himself. Over a career that had already produced nine feature films, never once had he focused on a female protagonist thus he opted to buck a lifelong trend. Just to be clear, that goose has now been well and truly cooked.

“I can’t sing, I can’t dance, I can’t write… no real talent. But I’m pretty, and I can make money off pretty.”

Meet fresh-faced sixteen-year-old ingénue Jesse (Elle Fanning) and don’t be fooled by the wide-eyes or timid demeanor. Having recently relocated to Los Angeles in the hope of pursuing her lifelong supermodel dreams, she has found herself rather in demand and learns a lot faster than given credit for. It’s eat or be eaten out here and she damn well knows it; which perhaps explains the skin and bone serpents slithering around her with intent to trip.

Vapid voles Sarah (Abby Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote) are fast approaching their sell-by dates and don’t take at all kindly to the intrusion. “I hear your parents are dead,” says Gigi sweetly, following Jesse’s blah response to her surgical enhancements. Moreover, should words fail to cut deep enough, then their dead eyes can vocalize any collective loathing on their behalf. Jesse is on high alert every time they approach but these brain-frozen bitches don’t ever need know that. In L.A. its known as playing the game.

“Nothing fake, nothing false. A diamond in a sea of glass.”

Coming off the back of a triumphant test shoot with scowling starmaker, Jack McCarther (Desmond Harrington), Jesse quickly signs the dotted line with high power modelling agent, Roberta Hoffman (Christina Hendricks), and is soon roaming runways for ostentatious top designer, Roberto Sarno (Alessandro Nivola). You know you’ve made it in this business when you find yourself stepping out in an outfit made of bacofoil and feel empowered as opposed to ridiculous.

“I don’t want to be like them. They want to be like me.”

Things are evidently on the up for Jesse and it will take more than a stray cougar slinking about her boudoir at the dead of night for no apparent reason to snuff this buzz. Nevertheless, with cretins like fleabag motel owner Hank (Keanu Reeves) looking to exploit her in ways other than monetary, it is vital that she has friends to look out for her. After all, in a few short years, she’ll be running into them on the way back down.

“You’ve got that look. Oh don’t worry honey, that whole deer in the headlights thing is exactly what they want.”

In seasoned make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone), she appears to have bagged herself a bestie, and it’s here that Jesse’s naïvety begins to show. You see, Ruby moonlights at the morgue and it just so happens that stiffs don’t talk back so the fact that Jesse possesses a pulse pushes her right up in the pecking order. While Ruby’s affection is nothing less than sincere, it’s also something far greater than platonic and rapidly approaching the point of well-mannered obsession.

Meanwhile, prospective boyfriend Dean (Karl Glusman) has made his agenda more than clear and it involves looking out for her best interests. Regrettably for Dean, nice guys have a tendency to finish last in this stretch of palm trees and Jesse’s interests are beginning to fluctuate wildly. Indeed, Jesse herself is starting to fluctuate wildly. Narcissism hasn’t so much knocked on the door as let itself in and slipped on the carpet slippers and this leaves no available spot for Dean to crash.

Fanning’s performance is quietly devastating and deeply guttural, as though she is being spoon-fed a poison that is corroding her from the inside out. The role of Jesse is far less about emoting than inverting, revealing precious little whilst holding absolutely nothing back, and incredibly tough to nail. But nail it she does, so much so, that we are left no other option than to become entranced by her gaze, fall hopelessly beneath her spell, and traipse in her wake from one airless pocket to the next.

Aside from our leading light, all other characters are painted far more broadly, although Malone’s nuanced turn as the silently yearning Ruby is almost as critical to the seduction. Indeed her personal journey is even more pronounced than Jesse’s and Malone shifts velocity quite brilliantly when it is asked of her. Naturally she doesn’t dare attempt to bask in a spotlight that simply isn’t intended for her as she’s ultimately just another quick fix plaything for Jesse to disregard but she weeps melancholia in such a dignified manner that we cannot help but offer her a tissue.

“Who wants sour milk when you can get fresh meat?”

Then there are the alphas and they are almost unanimous in their repugnance. The sole exception to this rule is the character of Dean and Glusman passes through like a man whose curfew just expired, before vanishing entirely without trace. Predictably, Refn received wrist slaps for not supplying closure to the one thing that grounds his story in reality and I’d advise its detractors to pay a visit to Irony 101 as there’s a fairly blatant clue in that one that really ain’t all that hard to decipher. After all – Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing. And there’s simply no time here for fraternizing with the beast, no matter how delicate his posture. Diversion over. Move swiftly on. Simple.

While we’re on the subject of fault-finding, another criticism I’ve heard leveled at The Neon Demon is that its beauty is only skin deep and the overall film is as shallow as the industry it pokes a stick at. Peel back its surface layer and apparently all that exists is dead air. It’s funny as I attempted such and found a multitude of identical layers, bound together like the sheets of a glossy fashion publication, each one lacquered to within an inch of its life. Empty it’s most certainly not.

However, the most critical factor by far is the audio and Cliff Martinez once again sets the tone to his wristwatch. His propulsive synth-heavy compositions call to mind the likes of Goblin and Tangerine Dream at the peak of their creative prowess, telling a tale all on their own and providing a great deal more than simple window dressing. Seldom has sound proved so integral a plot device, particularly given the dearth of spoken narrative, and their rhythmic pulse mesmerizes every bit as much as the visuals.

When The Neon Demon premiered at a packed Cannes Film Festival, it split the audience straight down the middle. While some applauded, others condemned it for being self-indulgent, ethically unsound, intellectually destitute and utterly abhorrent. However, I’m sure Refn didn’t lose too much sleep as it certainly beats indifference. Say what you will about the great Dane (and his numerous disparagers do so freely), but at least he has the cojones to challenge cinematic conventions, regardless of any sticks and stones lobbed his way. The world of fixated fashionistas and fickle fortunes he fashions is both fanciable, and in turn, frightful. As for the titular demon, well it may not rear its ugly head in a literal sense, but it’s right there in every last neon-drenched frame. 

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10

Grue Factor: 2/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: While not nearly as barbaric as Only God Forgives, Refn’s film finds fresh and inventive manners in which to repulse. From staging elaborate blood-bathed Elizabeth Báthory sequences, to having skeletal savages spew forth indigestible eyeballs only for them to be consumed by the next in line, he still knows precisely how to turn our stomachs. Besides, where else in contemporary cinema can acts of lesbian necrophilia not feel gratuitous or unnatural?


Cliff Martinez “Are We Having A Party”

Cinema is an art, first and foremost. Our economic system tends to forget that, but still some movie makers manage to set out their vision of the world and bring us back to our deepest selves to open our minds a little more to what’s human. Like Gaspar Noé and Jérémy Saulnier, whose works rely on the feeling of abandonment of their protagonists to bring us an artistic proposal and introduce a reflection on art, Nicolas Winding Refn’s THE NEON DEMON delivers a deep human experience with superior artistic content.
With ONLY GOD FORGIVES, Refn already guided us to a more abstract and less conventional form of cinema. The door left ajar by David Lynch with LOST HIGHWAY has now become accessible thanks to THE NEON DEMON. This route offers another space of expression to the seventh art, a space more specialized than virtual reality for it is more artistic. THE NEON DEMON is more than a movie. It’s a true work of art. Refn uses all the tools cinema provides, then transforms them.  The narrative builds up and evolves as much through the dialogue, as by the use of symbols and colors, images and sound, matter and light. This all juxtaposes to finally reveal the true purpose of the movie.

This movie is not so much about telling the story of the rise of a supermodel as it is about immersing us in the sick universe of a world in perfect harmony with our time. With his movie which takes place in the world of fashion, Refn himself says he wanted to talk about obsession with beauty. He succeeds masterfully thanks to his staggering artistic direction, the stunning work of chief operator Natasha Braier and the exceptional score of Cliff Martinez.

The form also perfectly serves its purpose. While aesthetically, THE NEON DEMON is a work of rare beauty, Refn reveals the almost unreal character of this plastic beauty and the subjectivity it leads into. A photographer who excels in his art but doesn’t cultivate snobbery is not considered a star in the world of fashion; the splendor of his photos have no impact on those who count (models, agencies, designers etc). The success of the photographer is not related to the beauty of his work but to his attitude. Everything is about attitude; the attitude one has cultivated and the image one reflects.

Shakespeare’s weird sisters in Macbeth said “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” (translated by Victor Hugo: “beauty is ugly and ugliness is beautiful”)… This all-consuming obsession with beauty reveals bloodless cannibals who fade completely behind their obsession. The main character herself possesses this rare beauty that all seek, but has no real importance. Refn makes Jesse disappear in the middle of the third act; stating that what counts is what she represents, not her carnal envelope.

In THE NEON DEMON, Refn exposes the hidden face of absolute narcissism and the morbid despair felt when self-esteem collapses or does not exist. In this polished universe where discussions only revolve around the need to be desired, to be emotionally and sexually available and the one who will be chosen, there can be no cheerful conclusion. Only the evaporation, the absorption, the integration of the flesh can lead to elevation, absolution, and finally to bliss.

Brilliantly, Refn announced from the very beginning, the true nature of THE NEON DEMON with one of the most fascinating scenes of his entire oeuvre. In the style Dario Argento adopted for TENEBRAE when making us crawl along the roof of a villa to inform us of the approach of evil, Nicolas Winding Refn plunges us beneath the black lights of a nightclub pulsating with the beats of Julian Winding’s mighty ‘Demon Dance’, warning us of the entrance of his threatening Demon.

Emilie Flory


Read Drive Appraisal
Read Only God Forgives Appraisal
Read Black Swan Appraisal
Read Starry Eyes Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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  1. Sounds like a good one, Rich! Can’t wait to see it. Terrific appraisal. I love Jena Malone & Desmond Harrington. Both are fine actors & Elle Fanning has really blossomed into a fine actress.

    1. Agreed on all three counts Susan. It’s a strange one for sure and never quite hits the heights of Drive and Only God Forgives but Refn’s films are such optical and aural candies, he could direct a moccasin commercial and still make it stylish.

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