Review: The Neon Demon [2016]

a review by the Crow.

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OPENING THOUGHTS

(Reviewer’s Note: Some days ago, I started on a draft concerning the recent works of NWR. I do believe, however, that I should review his latest movie before I dive into that post. An expanded entry concerning this movie is also on the cards for a future date.)

The Neon Demon is a movie not many people have yet watched, as it turns out. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn and starring the excellent Elle Fanning, among others, it’s been met with divided reactions (a standing ovation through a sea of boos at Cannes). So of course this crow is going to weigh in.

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THE SUBJECT

WARNING: THIS SECTION CONTAINS SOME [MINOR] SPOILERS

The first thing you notice in The Neon Demon is the predatory nature of people. The very first scene features Jessie (Elle Fanning) lifeless, blood running from her neck and down her arm, under the preying gaze of Dean (Glusman). Soon after, Jessie is in a nightclub bathroom with three other girls: Ruby, a makeup artist whom she meets following her photoshoot with Dean; and new arrivals Gigi and Sarah. The two new arrivals converge on Jessie, while Ruby watches the interplay in silence. The thing in common between each of their encounters with Jessie, evident even in the stare of the man who stares notices her from across the nightclub, is that Jessie is little more than fresh meat.

The Neon Demon is in part a movie which explores the relationships shared between predators and prey. It can be interpreted to be a movie about evolution, even: Jessie, the newer, more successful variant – a diamond in a sea of glass; presented to the likes of Gigi and Sarah – the current predators hanging around in this rung of the food chain.

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The first notion of normalcy in this strange new world eventually comes in the form of Roberta, an agent who draws lines around Jessie after signing her on. She warns Jessie about the dangers of trusting people on the internet (like Dean), and to tell people that she’s nineteen because people believe what they’re told, honey. And yet, even she is shown to be somewhat ruthless immediately after.

The predation continues after this first breath of security. Jessie reveals to Dean that she’s just a month past sixteen, and after an initial recoiling from her in their secluded getaway, he still attempts to kiss her later in the night. We’re introduced to the man who runs the motel Jessie is living in (Keanu Reeves); and in time, to the man who was staring at her from across the nightclub – a photographer of some repute. In conjunction with a fashion designer who shows up soon after, we have our four men. The rest of this movie is populated with girls. However, each of the men seem to prey on Jessie in vastly different ways.

  • Dean has a general interest in Jessie – both personally and sexually, which are both paths down which he preys on her.
  • The man who runs the motel preys on Jessie in a slightly different way. While she at one point has a hallucination/nightmare regarding him which is both sexual and violent, the man comes off as someone who’s seen it all, and isn’t afraid to lay bare the ugly truths hidden behind the veneer of the industry Jessie’s snaking her way into. His flavour of predation is no more than selfish.
  • The photographer – Jack – is immediately creepy, and seemingly dangerous. However, he seems to only be interested in his art and his trade – which happen to be the same thing. His preying on Jessie is superficial, no matter what others tell her. His disconnection from everything apart from his trade is what defines him.
  • The fashion designer is possibly the only man who could be considered decent by casual measures. He comes off as interested only in finding the right canvasses onto which he may display his art. He preys on Jessie in a way similar to Jack, but with one added caveat: he actually cares about the person under the skin – in an almost pihlosophical way. He is the only one who presents no danger to Jessie on the surface.

Each of the characters so far, and beyond (with only one real exception – Reeves’ character) react to Jessie’s beauty on a personal level. Up until the final part of the movie – and even to a degree in that final part – they only exist in relation to Jessie. In this movie, as our favourite fashion-designer-man puts it later:

Beauty isn’t the most important thing. It’s the only thing.

Jessie is pretty, and she intends to make money off pretty. And it works. Jessie climbs quickly once she’s signed with the agency. The movie compresses the time in between her successive jumps up the ladder into single days, but time is ultimately not important here. What is important about the nature of time in the movie is that we know it’s linear, and that it revolves (like all else in the movie) around Jessie.

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After being selected for a fashion show, and being allowed to close it, we see a shift in Jessie’s persona (there is a healthy dose of foreshadowing present leading up to the very evident turning point – which is always a good thing). Jessie is not just pretty and making it – she is truly desired. And it’s that point, once the triangular structure she hallucinates redshifts away from her, that the movie begins to come off the bones, and unravel into something far, far different. What is real is now thrown into doubt. And it continues to be, in greater and greater degrees.

There are some striking moments I would mention, if this were a summary. But I won’t, because you won’t want to know until you see it for yourself.

At the end of the day, the plot is ultimately simple, but with a movie like The Neon Demon, plot isn’t everything. What there is, however, keeps the theme tightly wound in its grasp, and it plays on them magnificently. I’d have to go with: good job! as far as the plot goes, because that’s what it does.


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THE FRAMES AND MIRRORS

The one thing with NWR movies is how damn good they look. The man manages to suck the art out of any given space. Credit must be given to his art team (cinematographers, set designers, and all) for helping him make things so gods-damn gorgeous. This is a director I’d trust to film paint drying on a wall and still enthrall art enthusiasts.

Among the things that I personally find interesting about the movie is how NWR uses matryoshka-like framing. Beyond the four walls of the movie, characters find themselves often framed again in mirrors at poignant moments. In effect, we see them when they have their backs turned to us and/or others, or when they themselves cannot see themselves.

Another thing I love about NWR’s use of visuals is how he strips away the background in certain scenes. This technique is most prominent during the two “show” scenes – one at the nightclub, and the other during the fashion show.

  • In the nightclub: while we get a flashing glimpse of people surrounding the star of the show, the movie has our four central women (Jessie, Ruby, Gigi, and Sarah) isolated against a dark void and presented to us through intermittent light strobes.
  • During the fashion show, the background strips away again, and the panning of the camera is used to tell the sequence of events over time, interrupted by the flashing of snapping lights.

Beyond these two specific scenes, this is a technique that reappears during other scenes – for instance during Jessie’s first shoot with Jack, the photographer. It’s not as overpowering, but the spectre of it lurks in the corners of a good number of scenes.

And of course, like any good artist, NWR and his crew manage to find the right balances between the foreground, subject, and background to add depth to the movie. It’s quite nice, to see how the technique is employed against the vibrant colours which permeate the first “half” of the movie’s plot.

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The scene from which this moment’s taken from is no exception to how that last technique is employed. Take note of what’s in the “middle ground”, here.

While I almost never pay attention to it, the makeup and treatment of faces on the screen must also be talked about. I’m not talking about the glitzy “weird fashion” makeup, either. I’m talking about how the movie uses makeup and lighting to completely transform the central women’s faces between plot runs.

And finally, we must talk about the soundtrack.

Sound is used to great effect in the movie, but even its masterful use aside: this score is an amazing work all in its own right. Amazing work on display.


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OBJECTS

One thing that must be pointed out is that characters in NWR’s movies aren’t really people, they’re more like symbols. They’re almost cardboard; but that’s no problem. NWR films have a quality of robbing us of something usually held in high regard by critics of fiction: relatability. His characters, on a level, lack depth. However, they also manage to be deeper than one would think because they’re explorations of archetypes.

JESSIE 9/10

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Elle Fanning continues to sparkle in the mad, mad world of movies. That’s really all there is to say. A true diamond we have, here.

RUBY 9/10

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Oh, how lovely it is to see Jena Malone back. I remember her very fondly from Donnie Darko; and how she shines. When her character transforms, following Jessie’s own transformation, there is no question that Malone has mastered her craft. It’s funny, how this movie hits so close to home when one considers Malone’s own past.

GIGI 7.5/10

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Ah, the bionic woman. One of the “terrible twins”. While more robotic leading up to the finale, Gigi retains far more humanity than her counterpart, and that is her eventual downfall. Excellently handled and executed. 

SARAH 7.5/10 

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Gigi’s counterpart, Sarah is equal in weight, and just nearly surpasses her. While mostly aloof, she has a mental breakdown at one point, and almost immediately reveals her true nature. She is a truly convincing bloodsucking, mirror-shattering, witch-in-transition. Her final action in the closing scenes of the movie cement why she is the only one to go beyond the plot. 

DEAN 7/10

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Not really much to say. Dean is well acted, but as happens with his type, the character is ultimately just small fish. Sorry, Bean …oh, sorry, Dean. 

MR DESIGNER 9/10

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There’s nothing to say about Mr Designer that I haven’t already covered. At one point Gigi insinuates that he just might be gay, although it’s more of a means to put Jessie down, so who knows? Is it the reason he’s not a predator like the other men are insinuated to be? Of course not. The man is simply sure of his position in relation to those around him, and cares only about his canvasses. He simply does not stoop to the lows we’re meant to expect from the men in this movie. 

MR LANDLORD 7/10

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Who in their right mind would imagine Keanu Reeves in this role? And holy heck – can the man pull of an outrageous dickhead. Despite his tiny amount of screentime, I’m happy it was Keanu Reeves’ presence to really rub in the discomfort. 

MR PHOTOGRAPHER 6/10

Another one of the nice guys, although we might not think it for some time. A complete robot of a person.

ROBERTA 5/10 

Christina Hendricks, oh how I remember you as YoSaffBridge! It’s a shame you were only a plot point and nothing more. Well acted, as always.


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CLOSING THOUGHTS

Overall, this is a movie I had serious worries over before it hit theatres. I was more than a bit worried about the path Nicolas Winding Refn seemed to be going down and how Elle Fanning would be presented.

After watching it, I have to say that this is a return to form for NWR. This might even be my favourite movie by him (yes, even over Drive). His mastery over the art of restraint is visibly on display. His awareness about the subjects at play – and even his own work – are there. All the performers knock it out of the park with this one (who, in all honesty – since I must reiterate – could see Keanu Reeves in the shoes of the character he plays in this movie?). Every single member of the crew executes their job to perfection.

In conclusion: I highly recommend The Neon Demon to any and all film enthusiasts. It’s one of the best movie events of the year. It’s a diamond in a sea of glass – a most refreshing change from the formulaic crap that’s been shoved down our throats for so long.

Thank you, NWR.

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Rating: 8/10

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