Nicolas Winding Refn had been around for years before he draped Ryan Gosling in that silver scorpion jacket and became such a name among the movie savvy that he can get a John Hyams remake of MANIAC COP funded and put his initials on the beginning and end of his movies like they’re monogrammed towels. He’d had international acclaim for the PUSHER trilogy and VALHALLA RISING, but DRIVE was such a perfect balance of effective crime drama, zeitgeisty nostalgia and style, and arthouse indulgence that it became a bonafide cultural moment. And he’s been trying to punish us for it ever since.
I like that he lets his freak flag fly, and while most of my friends couldn’t hang with his follow-up ONLY GOD FORGIVES, it really spoke to me with its odd mix of revenge story deconstruction, broken martial arts movie structure and feverish surrealism. His latest, NEON DEMON, swerves even further off the road of logic and coherence in its exploration of the world of young models in L.A.
Elle Fanning (MALEFICENT, SUPER 8, THE NUTCRACKER IN 3D, SOMEWHERE), somehow looking five years younger and more naive than in whatever movie I saw her in last, plays Jesse, a newcomer to town trying to find gigs. Makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone, INHERENT VICE, SUCKER PUNCH) latches onto her after a shoot and introduces her to Gigi (Bella Heathcote, DARK SHADOWS) and Sarah (Abbey Lee, the Dag from FURY ROAD, also in GODS OF EGYPT), more experienced models who respond with jealousy and cruelty when the gatekeepers start treating her as something special.
Of course you can’t trust men in this world. But one guy (Karl Glusman) who instantly seems like a creep, and who tries to kiss her after he finds out she’s underage, turns out to be the closest thing to a good guy in the movie. Those hoping for some kind of obvious girl power message (at one point people were hyping this as an “all female horror movie”) may be offended by the backstabbing women, predatory lesbianism and women-as-felines symbolism, but it’s written by women (Mary Laws and Polly Stenham are credited along with Refn) so leave that one alone, I say.
Everyone is good in it, but particularly Lee, who I think has the most complex mix of horrible and human in a group of characters that aren’t necessarily meant to represent actual people. Cinematographer Natasha Braier did THE ROVER, and this is the opposite of that dusty, matter-of-fact Apocalypse: clean, static, sometimes bright colors from the lighting to the face paint, shiny, glimmering glitter and lipstick and women.
The atmosphere is eerie, and there’s kind of a creepy freemason feel with its inexplicable use of weird triangle graphics and ritualistic poses. My pulse increases when the trademark Cliff Martinez evil disco scoring starts pumping, but much of this takes place in quiet rooms (usually white and antiseptic) where nobody wants to play music or have MSNBC on or have a conversation or anything like that. You hear them breathe and swallow. I didn’t notice until it was pointed out on this interesting Q&A on the Talkhouse podcast that nobody uses phones or other current technology. It still feels to me very of the moment.
My favorite part is the most straight up horror sequence, a tense invasion-of-the-safe-place, things-that-go-bump-in-the-night scene with a small appearance by a beloved actor playing against type, and a crazy reveal that’s either surrealism or a non sequitur or a thing that I didn’t realize happens in L.A., I’m not sure which. Although Refn reportedly shoots his movies in sequence, scenes like this seem like they could be lifted up and put back anywhere in the movie, or in a totally different movie, which is one reason this reminds me of LOST HIGHWAY and MULHOLLAND DR. Although I found both of those Lynch movies more engaging than NEON DEMON I’m definitely not on the right wavelength to love them like so many do. This is a similar deal. As much as I could admire it intellectually, to me it’s too uneventful for just the uncomprehending experience to be enough, too random to feel like it’s really about much, not engaging enough for me want to try again right away. On that Q&A I linked above Refn says it’s “a horror movie about beauty,” which I guess is just not interesting enough of a topic to me to want to spend the time to decode all this.
What does it have to say about beauty? Some people are born more beautiful than others, and will be sought out by others. Some people use surgery to try to be beautiful, but sometimes they are rejected for not being natural. Rail thin little girls can be reassured that I don’t consider you fat like other people will. Women in their early twenties can feel like miserable old has-beens. Scummy motel pimps also consider youth to be a commodity. Probly some other points. Maybe I’m too shallow to understand, even though I’m not beautiful.
You can look at this as some bullshit that implies some kind of meaning instead of taking the time to have something coherent to say, or you can think of it as a more abstract approach to a horror movie, creating moods and emotions through imagery and strangeness without the shackles of, like, a normal plot. I’m actually willing to call it the second one, and that is a legitimate type of movie that some people really love. And I think it’s important that we always have a few filmatists still out there who have a powerful control of the cinematic language and want to use it for their own freaky shit and not just to get hired by a studio to do a slick reboot of Riptide or whatever. (Not that I would be against him doing his version of a sellout movie.)
While Refn calls it his horror movie, and I’m not sure what else you could call it, don’t expect it to fulfill any standard expectations of the genre. You get a couple effectively revolting gore events (and even a SPOILER necrophilia scene) but they’re not timed like any sort of pay off. They’re just… things that happen eventually. And that’s intentional. I can enjoy a good paint-dryer now and again, but I don’t think this particular one is for me.
Oh man, I think I’m turning into that theoretical overly literal person I hated when I was young. I would’ve loved this back then, and thought people who didn’t were boring and didn’t get it. But in my defense it says “For Liv” at the end. He made it for his wife, he didn’t make it for me!
I have no doubt that some of you do/will love this, and I’d like to hear your thoughts.
In conclusion, Asylum should make a knock off called CALIFORNIA DEMON.
(I’m putting my initials at the end of everything now too)
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.