Monday, June 27, 2016

Review: The Neon Demon

by Patrick Bromley
Maybe this movie should have skipped wide release altogether and gone straight to the midnight circuit.

Like an arthouse version of Showgirls, Nicholas Winding Refn's latest movie The Neon Demon filters high camp through the filmmaker's impeccable eye, set to the pulsing soundtrack of Cliff Martinez delivering the year's best score. It is transcendently superficial, concerned with aesthetics above all else. It is a movie about people obsessed with surfaces, reflecting that obsession back with two hours of impossible cool and gorgeous surfaces. In the words of one famous filmmaker, movies are Picture and Sound. Well, Refn offers some of the best Pictures and Sound of 2016. Provided we accept the aforementioned definition of film, The Neon Demon is one of the year's best.

Elle Fanning plays Jesse, a 16-year old girl who has just moved out to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a model. She signs with an agent (Christina Hendricks) who advises Jesse to list her age as 19 and begins to book a number of high profile jobs, in the process befriending a makeup artist (Jenna Malone) and drawing the ire of rival models Gigi (Bella Heathcoate) and Sarah (Abbey Lee).
There is more to the plot of The Neon Demon, but not a lot more. As a story, there isn't a whole lot of story here -- and what story there is will be familiar to almost anyone who has seen A Star is Born or any movie in which a young ingenue is threatened to be swallowed up by her own success. Less what it is about than how it's about it, The Neon Demon wants to assault your senses and have a visceral impact rather than engage you on an emotional level. At this, it succeeds. But after sitting through one piece of product after another this summer -- sequels and franchises designed to sell you an IP and build a brand -- it feels good to sit down in the presence of a filmmaker who wants to make a movie. Yes, it's going to repel a lot of people. It is deliberately paced to the point of being "slow" and never compromises from being exactly what it wants to be. At a time when so many films are sanded off, four-quadrant crowdpleasers, The Neon Demon is willing to risk being hated. This is a movie that does not come to you or even meet you halfway. You have to come to it. There are rewards in store for those that do.

Though it lacks the commercial appeal of Refn's 2011 breakout Drive (still his most accessible movie; this one is closer to his follow-up, Only God Forgives, a movie I am not particularly crazy about), there remain a number of similarities between the two movies. If Drive is Refn's L.A. noir film, The Neon Demon is his L.A. horror -- not only because it slowly gives way to the conventions of the genre, but also because it's a movie about the horror of living in a city that wants to eat you alive. And, like with Drive, Refn is riffing on other films that have influenced him. The world with which we are presented here has nothing to do with the actual fashion industry and everything to do with other movies: the nightmarish abstraction of David Lynch, the extreme lighting of Suspiria and Inferno-period Dario Argento, the mixing of slick sexuality and darkly comic Grand Guignol traceable back to Brian De Palma's early thrillers. It's no wonder I fucking love this movie.
Here is a case of a filmmmaker having his gorgeous, blood-soaked cake and eating it too. From the opening titles, which appear with Refn's initials (NWR) inscribed at the bottom of the screen, the director announces a film that is both a celebration and a critique of pretentiousness -- a poison letter to Los Angeles in which nearly every single character, from the guy who runs the motel (Keanu Reeves, continuing to build on the goodwill earned with his performance in Knock Knock) to a comically intense photographer (Desmond Harrington) to the fashion designer played like a parody of the elite (Alessandro Nivola), is a monster at once trying to exploit Jesse and trying to own her in some way. She is special, untainted, unaltered by surgery. Young. New. Even Jesse recognizes this. Fanning plays her as mostly a blank, never fully letting on one way or another as to how much of Jesse's deer-in-the-headlights naïveté is the real deal and how much is a put-on to give people what it is they want. She knows that she is special and says as much. What she doesn't know is just how strong an effect she'll have on the predators by which she is surrounded, all of whom are drawn to her like animals to pheromones. Therein lies the trouble: you can expect the worst of people, but they'll always surprise you by being even more horrible.
The movie is being marketed as a horror film, though you wouldn't necessarily know that for the first two thirds of its running time. Fear not. Refn goes to some shockingly dark places -- particularly for a movie that's playing multiplexes next to the newest Pixar film -- but does so in a manner so gleefully over the top that, like with the early work of Palma, I can practically hear him giggling off camera. When the movie goes for it, it goes for it...up to and including its perfect punchline. The payoff is worth the patience required to navigate the movie's pacing, which is methodically slow and affords its audience the time to absorb the sensory explosion it ever so carefully drips onto the screen.

The Neon Demon isn't just a movie; it's an experience. Find the biggest screen and the loudest sound system you can and see it while it's still in theaters, as a movie this polarizing isn't going to play for very long (at least not in its first run, though I suspect it will become a fixture on the revival circuit). It may not offer much new to say, but it offers a new and stunning way to say it. Plenty of people will reject it because it's that kind of movie. That's ok. It's also the kind of movie that some of us eat up.

18 comments:

  1. I was looking forward to this review. I watched Bronson before I went to see this. I really like Bronson and I love Drive. I hated Only God Forgives. I don't even consider it a movie.

    This film, however, is the first film in a long time that has left me with a great deal of uncertainty. I need to sit with it for a while before I can make a final judgment on it. With that said, I respect the hell out of it for going to the places it went to. I'm glad I saw it.

    Great review, Patrick.

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  2. Looking forward to seeing this. Good to know you dug Martinez's score. That guy is so good! His score for Contagion is what made me like that film.

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    1. Martinez is on one of the great runs. Check out The Knick.

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    2. I had no idea he did this score - SO GOOD! Thanks!

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    3. I like the Sia song that plays over the end credits.

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    4. I like Zero 7 Sia, no so much solo Sia but happy for her that she's found success. She is very talented and deserves it.

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  3. The eeriness and uncertainty of the where this was going reminded me of two films: Egoyan's Exotica and Heart of Midnight with Jennifer Jason Leigh. I really liked how dirty it felt, like a 90s erotic thriller substitute pseudo psychology for dreams about evil triangles

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    1. I loved Exotica, that's great to hear!

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  4. I saw the movie on Thursday and did not love it. I understand why you loved it Patrick, this movie is just not for me. Love your review!

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  5. While I enjoyed this movie stylistically, ultimately I just couldn't get into it. I don't necessarily blame the movie for that. Like Patrick has said in the past at a certain point either you're with the movie or you aren't, and I just wasn't with it. Maybe that will change on future viewings.

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  6. Michael GiammarinoJune 27, 2016 at 11:28 PM

    Just got back from my second viewing. I echo most of what Patrick says in his review, except where it involves Only God Forgives -- for some reason that film just stuck with me. Drive is still my favorite Refn film.

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  8. I think NWR is the only filmmaker whose films I get more excited for the lower the Rotten Tomatoes score (not that RT scores matter in any real sense). Pumped to hear you liked it. Even more pumped that it's more reminiscent of Only God Forgives which I'm convinced is a masterpiece.

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    1. If the slow motion was removed from Only God Forgives, it wouldn't make feature length.

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  9. Interesting review - Refn earned enough goodwill from me with Drive that I'm always going to want to see what he does next, but after feeling like Only God Forgives hated its audience (or at least me), I wasn't particularly hopeful - feeling better about it now!

    Patrick - I wonder if you (or anyone else who cares to comment who had a similar first-time viewing experience as me) have revisited OGF and if it's gotten any better on subsequent viewing(s)? Expectations were obviously through the roof after Drive so I'm not sure I gave it a fair shake.

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  10. Nice review. I certainly don't see how anyone would walk out of this movie, or boo it, because while the subject matter was thin, the visuals kept me engaged. "There is more to the plot of The Neon Demon, but not a lot more." Absolutely. Style over substance again for Refn. I reviewed this one too..check it out if you get a chance!

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  11. Wow, excellent review Patrick. I saw it with a friend this weekend and we were the only people in the theater, and we had a blast. I pretty much feel the exact same way you do about the movie. Also, I was thinking the whole time, Refn is really like the love child of Lynch and De Palma.

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  12. Of the year...
    Best Score
    Best Cinematography
    Best Movie
    I drove 2 hours to see this when it was in theaters but the projector was broken. I'm very upset I didn't get to see it theatrically. I couldn't agree more with everything you said. My favorite scene was at the club watching that dude floating as the beat thumps. I think it hypnotized me. I watched that 5 times.

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