***Spoilers for The Neon Demon Follow***
Unfortunately, 2016 hasn’t been the best year for horror movies, though it hasn’t been the worst either. In fact, 2016 seems to have been a moderate year, with some of the best films exhibiting hard-to-ignore flaws and the worst films showing flashes of promise. All the good films seemingly came out of left field while all we got from the hyped horror movies were splashy marketing campaigns and disappointment. For me, no other 2016 Horror Movie exemplifies this better than The Neon Demon.
Co-written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, director of the acclaimed 2011 film Drive, The Neon Demon is the story of Jesse, an innocent and angelic sixteen-year-old girl who runs way to Los Angeles to pursue a career in modeling. Almost immediately, Jess falls in with two lean, stunning, intimidating model bitches, Gigi and Sarah, and their plain (but not really) make-up artist friend Ruby. Jesse is also immediately signed to an agency headed up by an unscrupulous woman, recruited or a closed-set photoshoot with the hottest and creepiest photographer, and booked to close a famous designer’ show. And because this isn’t the real modeling world, the agency doesn’t put her up in a cramped apartment for models. Instead, Jesse must stay at a sleazy motel run by a slimy manager, played by none other than Keanu Reeves. Jesse’s beauty and innocence attract all manner of fashionable types, greedy and hungry for Jesse’s spark. They want to possess her, to consume her, to use her for their own dark ends.
I was excited to see The Neon Demon. I let myself get hyped, watching the trailer numerous times and bopping to the soundtrack in my car (still do). I scoured the early reviews, including those coming out of the Cannes Film Festival, where The Neon Demon competed for the Palme d’Or. I went to opening weekend to the only theater in Houston showing it. And I was sorely disappointed by what I saw.
As Wikipedia will tell you, reviews of The Neon Demon were mixed and very divided. The New York Times called it, “ridiculous and puerile.” The Hollywood Reporter described it as, “a stultifyingly vapid, ponderously paced allegorical critique of the modeling world whose seethingly jealous inhabitants can’t wait to literally chew each other up and spit each other out.” But other critics adored the film. The Miami Herald exclaimed, “The Neon Demon is flat-out bonkers in the best, most glorious way, and it reminds you how safe and stolid mainstream American movies have become, how afraid they are to do anything radically different and how befuddled we react when they dare.” The Telegraph declared, “Best of all, when the film reaches its logical end point, Refn just keeps pushing, and eventually lands on a sequence so jaw-dropping – involving the moon, an eye and a blade, perhaps in winking tribute to Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s legendary surrealist short Un Chien Andalou – that all you can do is howl or cheer.“
The Neon Demon was not the worst horror film of 2016. Nowhere close. It ranks in the middle of the pack for horror movies this year, buoyed by its stunning cinematography and solid performances. There was considerable skill and craft at work, which some critics were unwilling to consider. But other reviewers seemed all-too willing to disregard the film’s weaknesses, of which there were many. Some of those reviews were a little harsh while others were laughably free with their praise. (Just for the record, comparing Refn to French director Luis Buñuel and Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali is an insult to both of those visionary artists, especially when discussing The Neon Demon.)
The biggest complaint I have about this movie is that it assailed its audience with too much yet offered too little payoff. In spite of it’s gorgeous cinematography, talented cast, and kickass soundtrack, The Neon Demon felt like a pretentious student film with a nice budget. It was a confusing film, confusing in a way that failed to engage me or compel me to probe further. I went into the theater ready to be challenged in one way or another. I left feeling…blah. I didn’t hate it. I didn’t love it. I wasn’t sure if my time had been worth it.
At least I was sure of the things I liked. The Neon Demon was visually beautiful. Dear Lord, was it gorgeous! It was the prettiest and most visually impressive horror movie of the year. The visuals alone were worth the price of my ticket, and it was definitely worth two hours of my life to watch the lovely, bold, pulsating images strut and glide across the screen in sync with Cliff Martinez’s epic score. The film reminded me so much of the classic giallo films of Italian horror that comparisons to Suspiria are unavoidable and encouraged by the filmmakers. If you care to read more about cinematographer Natasha Braier’s work on the film, check out this article. It gets a little technical, but its’ a fascinating insight into a part of filmmaking that no one really talks about.
I must also give credit to the cast, which did an exceptional job with what little they were given. Elle Fanning plays Jesse with the required levels of naïveté and fear, but she also imbues her character with a keen sense of self-awareness. One gets the feeling that Jesse is constantly assessing the motivations of those around her, struggling to react and protect herself. These acting choices make Jesse a compelling character and elevate her beyond what the script gave Jesse. In the hands of a less accomplished actress, the film might have disintegrated without such a strong performance to anchor it.
As for the other characters, they do their best. Poor Bella Heathcote, playing insecure Gigi, seemed like she had been directed to give as flat a performance as possible, an odd but very Refn-esque choice, which is to say an unsurprising choice. Nevertheless, she was able to slip in bits of genuine human emotion. Abbey Lee, as Sarah, succeeded despite the ridiculous dialogue she was given, wisely choosing to throw herself into such lines like “Who wants sour milk when you can get fresh meat?” and “All she really wants to know is, who are you fucking?” I liked her character, how she snarled and postured and how she could barely hide her desperation. Jena Malone turned in a nuanced and subtle performance as the not-so-altruistic Ruby. And Keanu Reeves was a pleasant surprise, playing against type as a real nasty sonuvabitch.
But the foregoing was not enough to convince me that I had actually enjoyed The Neon Demon. It has been difficult for me to finally put it into words, but The Neon Demon could not decide if it wanted to be a critique of the shallowness and vapidity in the real world or if it wanted to explore a nightmare world of the vicious consumption of beauty. It spent time establishing the mechanisms of the fashion world but did so incorrectly. It didn’t do enough to present a fully realized nightmare.
It tried to depict the complexity and sometimes perilous nature of female relationships but failed to capture the feel of a female relationship. Girls do not hang out in bathrooms asking each other silly questions about lipstick colors nor are they so free about their eating disorders and copious amounts of plastic surgery, even when they’re being mean and bitchy, and especially in as cutthroat an industry as fashion.
In general, no one talks the way the characters talk in the Neon Demon. While stylized dialogue can be purposeful, usually it is employed so characters can say particularly insightful things. Refn used it to lob bombs like “She has that…thing,” at the audience, which made me roll my eyes so hard I almost fell out of my seat. God bless Jena Malone and her sense of professionalism, which enabled her to say that line with a straight face.
And most disappointingly, the “horror” of The Neon Demon was unimpressive. What good is all the amazing cinematography if I don’t see something truly messed up? The closest the film got to disturbing content is a tense scene between Jesse, the motel owner, and a knife. It’s a very good scene and Refn could have built on this. Instead, he chose to focus unwarranted amount of time on the somewhat infamous necrophilia scene, which shocked not because it created a sizable narrative impact but because it was a necrophilia scene. That’s a pretty major card to play, and Refn played it without proper context. It was a lazy way to inject revulsion and horror into a horror film lacking horror.
Worse still, the necrophilia made the audience numb to the film’s climax. Mind you, in the last few minutes of the film, poor Jesse meets her bloody end, Gigi, Abbey, and Ruby literally consume her beauty, Ruby has a massive period after lounging topless on Jesse’s grave, Gigi leaves a photoshoot to cough up an eyeball and eviscerate herself, and Abbey eats the eyeball before finishing the photoshoot. And none of it had the impact Refn clearly craved, because he’d just raised the bar terribly high with a necrophilia scene. Why the hell do I care about a regurgitated eyeball when I had to endure Jena Malone have relations with a corpse?
This isn’t an exercise in subverting audience expectation—this is unfocused, half-assed storytelling.
I wish Refn had been as irreverent as he claims to be. The world is full of thousands of awful, horrible stories about beauty and how it inspires people to be monstrous. Whether Refn wanted to adhere to a linear narrative or create a set of semi-surreal images, there was a ton of fucked-up, real-life fashion horror to draw on. Make characters unpredictable instead of shallow. Go whole hog on surrealistic imagery and plot developments that mess with audience expectation. Ditch a linear narrative completely.
If I was supposed to feel something, make me feel it. Don’t give me an uneven, clumsy film and then stand back and sneer, I meant to do that. No. No, you didn’t. Stop lying.
All of this is to say that it felt like a juvenile effort from a self-important dude who saw a few episodes of America’s Next Top Model, watched The Valley of the Dolls, and decided he understood a great deal about how women navigate a world that prizes beauty above all else.
I know, I know, Refn is all about “edginess,” (where edginess is a convenient excuse for his lack of focus). Defenders of The Neon Demon like to argue that, “Not all movies are intended to be read like books; some are meant to be experienced,” That is a true statement, but how does that apply to The Neon Demon? What experience was I supposed to have? Certainly not a horrific cinematic experience. This movie wasn’t challenging. Was I supposed to feel boredom and apathy? It didn’t provoke any strong reactions, good or bad.
What was I supposed to take away from this movie? That being beautiful makes you vulnerable to the dangerous desires of others? That people engage in depravity when beauty is on the line? That being aware of one’s beauty can lead to narcissism? That the world abuses and exploits young pretty things? That women are caught in a never-ending yet futile cycle of clinging to youth and beauty? That a well-connected male director can coast on the strength of movies he made years ago?
I know this already.
To anyone who loved The Neon Demon, explain it to me. Seriously. Explain what I’m missing. I’ve had this conversation so many times and no one could defend their love for this movie beyond “You’re not getting it.” I know! TELL ME WHAT TO GET.
Tell me why I should care.