The Neon Demon

tn_neondemonNicolas 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.

mp_neondemonOf 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)

This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 12th, 2016 at 11:16 am and is filed under Horror, I don't know, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

20 Responses to “The Neon Demon”

  1. The idea of Refn doing an Argento-esque horror thriller seemed awesome to me, but then the subject matter was revealed and I lost a lot of interest. “LA is superficial and phony” and “The modeling business is beautiful on the surface but ugly underneath” are pretty facile concepts that have been tackled a million times before, from STAR 80 to fucking ZOOLANDER. I’m sure Refn can bring something interesting to even the most jejune topic (and even if he can’t, I’ll see it eventually just for the psychedelic freakouts) but I can’t say I’m excited about it anymore. I guess I’m with Vern: Beauty is cool and all but I’m not sure it’s worth making a whole horror movie about.

  2. I’ll have to see this, but I’m sure it won’t be as good as THE EDITOR, which is my favorite Argento/Fulci-esque flick of the last few years. But I love Astron-6 with the heat of 48 suns, so I might be prejudiced.

    I don’t live in Hollywood or work there, but is it really so awful compared to all other industries? I mean, JAYSUS, the insurance industry is pretty evil too – but nobody’s making a movie about how they’re all Satan-worshippers and child merchants and lady traffickers and corpse humpers. Also probably evil would be Mattress stores – those fuckers are EVERYWHERE and how the hell do they stay in business??? Every single one probably has a giant pentagram in blood in the warehouse where they sacrifice salespeople that don’t make their quotas.

    Vern, every other websight is putting out their “Favorite Movies of the First Half of 2016” right now – which flicks would make your list?

  3. Who said you aren’t beautiful?

  4. This movie is basically about my girlfriend.

  5. She’s NOT underage, for the record. Also — mountain lions totally sneak in to open windows in Los Angeles.

  6. Refn always strikes me as pretentious in the classic sense of the world. His movies have a lot less substance than he might think. But, honestly, it doesn’t always bother me. Only God Forgives and Drive were all style, and they were fantastic. Both films were wonderful slices of neon noir. But I’m also only willing to go so far with him. I liked the first half of Valhalla Rising but kind of hated the second half, which felt like following around a bunch of lost actors in search of a film.

  7. Refn’s sellout movie was gonna be a remake of LOGAN’s RUN.

    Asylum would make NEON DAEMON.

  8. Mr. Shemp: I’d have to look over a release schedule to come up with an actual list, but off the top of my head I’d definitely say my #1 of the year so far is KILL ZONE 2, which incidentally comes out on disc here a week from today.

  9. A friend and I saw this in a big multiplex with not that many people in the audience. Near the end of the movie there was a cut to black, a second of silence, and then a couple electronic beats.

    Then a PA announcement said there was a fire and we had to leave the theater. Up until that point, we thought that the movie stopping and the fire alarm going off was part of the film.

    That’s how weird a movie this is. And the best part is that we ended up standing around in the parking lot talking with a couple of the strangers who’d been in the same audience with us – something that never happens to me in a multiplex, though in this case one of them was someone I’d seen at the local revival theater anyway. Fortunately the fire was minor and we were soon able to go back inside and watch the rest of the movie.

    I’m past the stage of worrying whether I “liked” a weird arty movie, but I’m glad I saw this one, though like Vern I thought the sudden shift into surrealism/fantasy near the end was a little hard to swallow (isn’t the photographer bothered that one of his models left the shoot without coming back?)

    To me the curvy Christina Hendricks and the arty Jena Malone were infinitely hotter than the bland supermodels they were supporting, and I’m not sure whether this was an intentional irony on Refn’s part or merely a reflection of my own preferences.

    And Neo was excellent.

  10. I thought this was a pretty cool movie. I saw it again on acid and it became one of my favorite vampire movies.

  11. California Demon on such a winter’s day…

  12. After the NEON DEMON it´s official: Refn Repeats on Winding Visuals.
    I respect him for that. Also i like movies that (at a certain point) are turning in these “dreamlike” states. But i would also appreciate if the next big thing that comes out of NWR´s brain would go a little more back to his own filmatic roots. Less Neon Shine and more of that PUSHER 3 mat earthy gloom (by the way: you should revisit PUSHER 3…it´s a straight up masterpiece!). I really loved that final “eye catcher” scene. It hit me hard.
    If you think about it: In the end the real Demon was that guy who played Neo in those other movies. The Neo Demon.

  13. I really hope Refn gets to make his Batgirl film.

    Seriously, he wants to make a Batgirl film.

    That would be something.

  14. “and there’s kind of a creepy freemason feel with its inexplicable use of weird triangle graphics and ritualistic poses.”

    I haven’t seen this yet (don’t live in a place were arthouse movies like get released in theaters), but it seems like it’s definitely riffing on the conspiracy theories surrounding the modern fashion industry, which is a pretty fucked up place.

    The prevailing theme in modern fashion photography is death, plain and simple, almost every model nowadays is made up to look like a lifeless corpse laying around, there’s also shit like a Syrian refugee crisis themed fashion shoot from last year (I’m not making that up) as well as tons of occultic, Masonic and general “Illuminati” type imagery.

    You can say this is just pretentious dudes having a laugh at pushing people’s buttons and not evidence of some conspiracy but you can’t deny it’s there.

    Hey Tawdry, you seem like a guy immersed in all this LA stuff, tell us, is there any truth to these conspiracy theories? Are LA hipsters all secret Devil worshipers? As a chucklefucker from Bible Belt fly over country I can’t help but see a sort of glamor in the idea of all you weirdo Californians over there secretly worshiping Satan.

  15. Did anybody see STARRY EYES? NEON DEMON could be a remake of that movie.

  16. I’m fine without a NWR Batgirl movie. The comic book movie machine has stolen enough talented directors as it is.

  17. Okay, I have to see this one. And Only God Forgives (never made that happen yet!). Not sure I’ll like it, but Drive is a masterpiece, and I’m glad this guy is out here carrying the freak flag. I’ll watch a couple more of his films out of sheer goodwill.

  18. Bartel: Yes, definitely. I kept thinking back to Starry Eyes throughout Neon Demon. At the very least, they would make a good double bill.

  19. I watched the entire film and there’s not a single fucking demon. Is it a metaphor? If so, then I think this is a case of false advertising.

    This movie looks fantastic, but it’s also kind of dumb. It doesn’t have a lot to say, and what it does have to say is really obvious. After actually watching the movie, I stand by my comment above. Refn makes genre movies, but he also seems embarrassed that he’s making genre movies. If he had leaned into the fact that this is a Lifetime Movie style melodrama mixed with a horror film, then I think the results would have been more interesting.

  20. i missed this but i finally saw it. check out my review, i had a pretty different reaction

    The Neon Demon (2016)

    This film was totally ignored on initial release (i’m a huge fan of NWR and wanted to see it, but it was literally in my local theaters for only 1 week) but is beyond relevant to today’s wave of...

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