Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Disturbing Violent Content, Bloody Images, Graphic Nudity, a scene of Aberrant Sexuality, and Language
Directed by: Nicholas Winding Refn
Written by: Mary Laws, Nicholas Winding Refn & Polly Stenham
Starring: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Desmond Harrington & Alessandro Nivola
Nicholas Winding Refn makes films that people either love or hate, including his own fans. To give him credit, Refn is a director who constantly displays a steady hand, always swings for the fences and creates movies he clearly wants to make. After putting a prison drama, a Viking epic, and two very different crime thrillers under his belt, Refn decided that he wanted take on a “horror movie.” Displaying hypnotic cinematography, an intoxicatingly perverse tone, and scenes that are likely to haunt my memories for a long time to come, THE NEON DEMON is a complicated film to describe. It will leave lots of people disgusted, likely gain a small cult following, and is easily one of the most unique films of 2016.
Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a 16-year-old aspiring model living in LA. Little is given about her past, but she openly states “pretty sells” and is willing to use to her looks to climb the cutthroat ladder of the modeling world. As Jesse’s career immediately grows, fellow models Sarah (Abby Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote) begin to fear for their own livelihoods. Finding friends in make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone) and amateur photographer Dean (Karl Gusman), Jesse slowly loses her humanity as success and beauty become her main focuses. However, modeling is unlike other careers in that it thrives on youth and also comes with an expiration date.
THE NEON DEMON is a gorgeous visual feast and a deeply disturbing experience at the same time. Nicholas Winding Refn has shown a knack for bringing lots of beautiful images to the screen and the same can be said for NEON DEMON’s cinematography. Every scene looks astonishing and the vibrant color scheme is pulsing with a life of its own. If you were pause any still frame of this movie it would look like a masterfully rendered painting or photography project. I cannot stress how breathtaking the visuals in this movie are, but the slick imagery also serves to make the horrific moments even more horrifying to behold.
Though NEON DEMON is described as a horror movie, it should be noted that it’s not a cheap jump-scare filled romp or a total gorefest. Though the story gets extremely nasty in its final third, it relies far more on psychological mindfuckery, darker-than-dark satire, and a deeply uncomfortable atmosphere that never gives the viewer room to breathe. There’s a dark sense of foreboding from the opening scene and it hovers over the rest of the running time. As the film goes on, you get the sense that Jesse may be vulnerable prey wandering in a land of predators. Creepy photographers, sleazebag perverts, jealous competition and the ever-growing sense of the unknown lie around every corner.
The film’s most disturbing moments arrive in the final third. I won’t go into specifics or give revealing hints at what happens (unlike other reviews that have outright spoiled stuff), but I will say that this is the first film in a long time that actually disgusted me. One scene made me feel physically ill and that’s among the highest realm of praise that I can give a movie like this. That moment wasn’t necessarily gory, but it certainly made me squirm in my seat and ranks among the most disturbing scenes I’ve seen. Whether it’s the elevator confrontation in DRIVE or the brutal torture sequence in ONLY GOD FORGIVES, Refn has never been a filmmaker to shy away from graphic violence. This film’s blood mostly makes an appearance during the final third, but those moments are both beautiful and brutal. The ending also serves as a sick punchline to send queasy audiences out on.
As far as the cast goes, everyone does a stellar job with what they’ve been given. The dialogue is blatant and obvious, but that’s sort of the point when you’re following around people who use beauty as their most valuable currency and a bunch of sleazy L.A. perverts. While I felt sympathy for Elle Fanning’s Jesse, I also didn’t necessarily find her to be a likable protagonist. Jenna Malone is fantastic as wild card Ruby, who has an interesting side job. Bella Heathcote and Abby Lee seem to relish their roles as heartless models. Karl Glusman plays the only “good” character in the film, but there are interesting points made about his motivations during one insightful conversation. Desmond Harrington is creepy as a mostly silent predatory photographer, while Keanu Reeves delivers his best performance in years as a sleazy motel owner.
My only complaints are small and derive from the very nature of THE NEON DEMON’s style and storytelling. There are a couple of dream sequences that get too over-the-top and one hallucination that runs a bit too long. The film also abruptly drops Keanu Reeves’ interesting contribution to the plot in an off-handed way. Still, THE NEON DEMON has plenty to please fans of art-house films, horror movies, and outright strange cinema. It’s another polarizing film from Refn and that was kind of expected from the get-go. THE NEON DEMON is loaded with amazing imagery, haunting moments, a great synthesizer soundtrack, and some of the most disturbing cinematic scenes in years. This is an unforgettable fairy tale about vanity turned vicious.