Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Neon Demon Review

When I was 12 years old, I had a grand mal seizure. An abnormality in the brain. Epilepsy. Two pills a day. Specific amount of sleep. Avoid triggers like flashing lights.

It has been 20 years, almost to the day since that moment and even though I was cleared by my doctor at 18, the desire to avoid those triggers remains. It's ingrained in me. Two decades of closing my eyes at the sight of a strobe light, unable to shake the fear that shook my soul so many years ago.

A red flashing light pulses through the frame in The Neon Demon. The beautiful faces of models in Los Angeles glow with each burst only to disappear a split second later. Jesse. Ruby. Gigi. Sarah. Beauty isn't everything, it's the only thing.

Almost everyone I know loves the film Drive. It's a dream come true for a filmmaker, to make a picture that receives almost universal acclaim and it's the best thing that ever happened to Nicolas Winding Refn. Not because of money or awards, but rather because of the general attention he has received from audiences that would hopefully seek out his future work. Future films they may boo and express anger towards because the man wants to make art that polarizes, which was quite evident when he followed up the success of Drive with the lavish but loathed Only God Forgives, which in my lonely world is a masterpiece.

Two decades of closing my eyes at the sight of a strobe light, but when that light began exploding into my retinas watching The Neon Demon, I couldn't look away. It was the first time I can remember over the past 20 years that I told myself, stop being silly. Something this beautiful, this hypnotic, this unsettling demands to be seen and to be appreciated. I feel like I should include the disclaimer that this movie isn't for everyone, but that's not a warning to steer clear, that's an invitation to come inside and see how it moves you. You may hate The Neon Demon. You may feel inclined to curse at the screen when it ends and demand your money back on the way out, but you will remember that time you cursed at the screen. You will remember the look on the teenage theater employees face when you hold out your hand and wait for a refund. You will remember The Neon Demon and it's shocking, beautiful, deranged imagery one way or another, and that's the type of cinema I want to see.

I'm not going to use this as a platform to bash other films by name, but within the last month I have seen some that I barely remember a single second of. Fun in the moment perhaps, but completely forgettable over time. Embrace provocative cinema that lingers, that titillates, that disturbs because it will live on.

The plot is simple but the way Refn goes about telling the story is anything but. Jesse (Elle Fanning) is new in town. Los Angeles, looking to be a model. She's 16 but when Roberta Hoffman (Christina Hendricks) hires her, she tells her to lie. You're 19, not 18. 18 is too on the nose. She's young and fresh faced and explodes onto the scene and the other models have taken notice, women who pay top dollar to fix what never needed fixing in the first place, their faces and bodies being altered to try to stay relevant in an industry that will chew them up and spit them out. At one point a model is heard commenting that someone they know is 21 years old so she might as well retire.

Beauty isn't everything, it's the only thing.

Ruby (Jena Malone), Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee) take notice, and the tension, anger and jealousy is instantly palpable. Not with Ruby, she sees Jesse differently. She smiles when Jesse enters the room. She stares at her and then apologizes for it. Ruby reaches out to her like a friend but there is something deeper, something more. With Gigi and Sarah, what you see is what you get because their true feelings and insecurities can't hide behind narcissistic words or phony smiles. They are destroyed by the arrival of Jesse. They see everything they have worked for, everything they live for evaporating before their eyes. All because of the beauty of a girl just hoping for a chance to stand in the spotlight, a chance to make a name for herself. They not only want to be rid of Jesse, they also long to taste what she has. Something they can never have again.

Every frame of The Neon Demon feels so carefully and perfectly constructed. The colors, the sights, the sounds, the movement of the characters. It's essential viewing even if it makes you feel dirty by the time it ends. It should make you feel dirty. The photography of Natasha Braier is absolutely electrifying. The musical score by Cliff Martinez is sublime, and the first thing I did after the film ended was look up how much it would cost to buy the soundtrack. The performances aren't always perfect but I'm not entirely sure they are supposed to be. This film walks a very thing line between that familiar Refn style and an absurdist bizarre satire that feels like something from the mind of David Lynch, and I think the acting fell in line with this concept. I was reminded of the first time I watched Mulholland Drive and I was scratching my head over the way the dialogue was delivered so awkwardly at times, only to later realize that I was stuck in some sort of fever dream that I wanted to fall back into over and over.

Including myself, six people were in my theater and I was the only one smiling in the end. I am certain The Neon Demon is destined to be one of those films that is horribly misunderstood, torn down and stepped on by a majority because of it. I have already come across those that want to shit on Refn for his misogyny, for portraying women in such a shallow, negative light, but I didn't find this movie to be a criticism of an entire gender but rather a commentary regarding the unfortunate reality of the way women feel forced to compete in this world by a repulsive, appearance obsessed society, a world that places such a disgusting premium on physical traits that rather than admire the beauty of another human being, instead the instinct is to find a way to tear them to the ground as a means of self-elevation. This isn't something relegated to Hollywood stories, I have seen it with my very own eyes. The hatred that is born of jealousy, the cruel and unsettling ramifications of misplaced anger when a woman I know personally speaks viciously of someone else without even truly knowing her, only because all the eyes in the room become transfixed by the confidence that carries her through it. In a perfect world we would feel good for them and their success, but this is a world where every room contains multiple mirrors in order to ensure outward physical perfection while the concept of inner beauty is laughed at and dismissed. This is far from a perfect world.

Ever since I was 12 years old, I have kept my eyes closed without giving it a second thought. I left them open for The Neon Demon.



  1. This sounds great. I am definitely putting it on my watch list.

    1. I am interested to hear what you think Nathan. It's bizarre and abstract and just when you think it's commentary is too on the nose, it takes a totally strange turn and makes you squirm in your seat haha.

      Also, after writing this I was sent a strong and possibly verified to be accurate theory that the characters are pulled from Greek mythology and now I want to watch it again and appreciate it even more.

  2. After many days of putting it off I finally saw this film. I loved Drive, was not enthusiastic about Only God Forgives, but hot damn The Neon Demon is something else. This movie will stay with me for days, nay, weeks. I'm still processing that climax, but man what a film.

    1. Awesome! Glad you enjoyed it so much Cody, it feels like we are in the minority haha. That's okay though.