Synopsis: When aspiring model Jesse moves to Los Angeles, her youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will take any means necessary to get what she has.
Stars: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Desmond Harrington, Alesandro Nivola
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Running Length: 117 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: First 75 minutes: (7/10); Final 45 minutes (1/10); Overall (4/10)
Review: When I first caught the trailer for The Neon Demon, I thought it had a nice giallo look that reminded me of horror maestro Dario Argento. Giallo, for the horror-averse, is a 20th-century Italian film genre and giallo films are thrillers often with slasher, supernatural horror, or crime fiction elements. Awash with bright, bold colors and an overall vison that favored style over any shred of substance, these films can be seen as overly cornball now but were considered viscerally raw during their time of release. I went into The Neon Demon expecting a nice side dish to Argento’s classic 1977 film Suspiria, but wound up with sour stomach.
While the thought of indulging in any food that slithers, slimes, or swims gets my stomach roiling I think I have a steely tolerance for gore and general grotesqueness but The Neon Demon finally broke me. This is a film with a substantial ick factor aiming to shock more than awe, it practically begs you to disengage more and more as the minutes t(ick) by. And that’s too bad because I can’t remember another movie in recent memory that starts off so well before devolving into a gross display of nastiness.
Right off the bat the film introduces an uneasiness as the studio credits/logos appear with no sound (one genius audience member kept asking for “Sound, please?”) and the credits play over a color shifting texture set to a synth score. We’re at a photo shoot and young Jesse (Elle Fanning, Trumbo) is playing dead for the camera, bathed in blood and keeping her eyes fixed and breathing to a minimum. New to town, she’s befriended by make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone, Inherent Vice) who appears to be taking a parental interest in Jesse’s well-being but may have sinister intentions hidden away.
Ruby introduces Jesse to her model friends, Gigi (Bella Heathcote, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and Sarah (Abbey Lee, Mad Max: Fury Road) who size up the fresh face as a serious threat to their already diminishing shelf life. Picked up by a prestigious modeling agency (led by Christina Hendricks, Zoolander 2 in a dandy of an all-too-brief cameo), favored by both a bad-boy photographer (Desmond Harrington, The Dark Knight Rises) and a famous designer (Alessandro Nivola, A Most Violent Year), and pursued by a seemingly benign acquaintance (Karl Glusman) before she knows it Jesse is the toast of the town in an other-wise gluten free industry.
These developments occupy the first half of the film and it creates genuine intrigue in the viewer as well as the characters. Who is this girl and where did she come from? Hints of a broken home and a dangerous past are only that, hints, mere morsels of information that lead down a rabbit hole. Once it leads you to the bottom, though, the ground hits hard and reality sets in. There’s blood letting (and drinking), necrophilia, cannibalism, and adolescent rape for the viewers that stick this one out (numerous people at my screening didn’t make it to the end credits).
It’s no secret that director Nicolas Winding Refn thrives on excess. Making a warm entrance with 2008’s Bronson (which introduced Tom Hardy to us) before releasing his big splash Drive in 2011, he fell mighty far with his follow-up Only God Forgives two years later and now The Neon Demon is his most difficult film to stomach yet. This one has an uncooked feel, bloody and tenderized without offering any heat. Some movies could make up for a lurid ending by knocking the beginning out of the park but even the fascinating opening stretch can’t save this one.
Winding Refn’s style (and name, his monogram appears over the beginning and end titles, showing up in the same frame as his actual film credit) is all over this one. He’s admitted to being color-blind which is why his palette is so vibrant and the film admittedly has a chic perfection to nearly every frame, but the script (co-written by Refn, Mary Laws, and Polly Stenham) is a schizophrenic mess. One moment it’s a wicked parable condemning the industry with its subversive commentary and the next it’s glorying the excess of young flesh and starved bodies. The graphic nudity feels exploitative and unnecessary, with Winding Refn lingering too long and too intently on his subjects.
Some sort of survival award must be given to the actors Winding Refn cast here. Fanning manages to come out the best, nicely using her blank stares and whisper of a voice to suggest innocence even when we start to suspect she’s been playing us all along. Lee and Heathcote are a nice pair of harpies, gnashing their teeth the higher Jesse rises and Lee in particular really sells an insanely disgusting moment near the conclusion. I’ve always loved Malone and feel sort of sorry for what she’s asked to do here, including an act so revolting I can’t bear to think about it let alone write about it. Then there’s Keanu Reeves (John Wick) as a manager of a seedy motel that shows up in one of Jesse’s twisted psycho-sexual nightmares only to act out an even more horrifying atrocity in reality.
Going back to Suspiria, I always loved its tagline: “The Only Thing More Terrifying Than The Last 12 Minutes Of This Film Are The First 92” and could apply a similar one to The Neon Demon: “The Only Thing More Disgusting Than The Last 5 Minutes Of This Film Are The Previous 112”.