The Neon Demon (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
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The Neon Demon (2016)

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Jesse has arrived with dreams in her heart and photographs in her hand.  She hopes to make it as a model and drifts her way into a high level of cutthroat competition.  As her dreams come closer to reality she begins to suspect she's in danger, and that this sensuous world is not as accommodating to her as she thinks.  Nicolas Winding Refn directs The Neon Demon from a screenplay written by Mary Laws, Polly Stenham, and Refn, and stars Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Abbey Lee, and Bella Heathcote.

It's been a long time since I've sat down to watch a movie whose existence is a pleasure in and of itself.  The Neon Demon, Nicolas Winding Refn's second movie since the surprise American success of Drive, is a luxurious tone poem of menace, beauty, competition, and desire.  Refn made a self-conscious choice to move away from the commentary on machismo that punctuated Drive and Only God Forgives.  He felt like he could not write meaningful women characters, a mostly valid and surprisingly self-aware criticism, so he enlisted Mary Laws and Polly Stenham to help him write the screenplay.

The results provide evidence to what I've said in the past about diversity in front of and behind the camera.  Diversity is not about meeting a quota, but listening to an incorporating different voices to tell stories we might not otherwise get to experience.  Laws, now working on the television show Preacher, brings a pulpy horror sensibility to the cutthroat backstage shenanigans of The Neon Demon.  Just as crucial is Stenham's work as a playwright as she drops hints both strong and subtle at the turbulent emotional core of Jesse (Elle Fanning).

Jena Malone, one of my favorite performers, is no stranger to working with mirrors.

The Neon Demon is about the modeling industry, but Laws and Stenham center the story around Jesse's blossoming awareness of her beauty and the discomfort that causes the women around her.  She finds a friend in makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone) which leads to Jesse being sized up for narcissistic slaughter by Ruby's acquaintances Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee).  Listen to the economy of dialogue when they speak.  Sarah's intent on drawing blood with each line, Gigi puts up a façade of friendliness just long enough to slap Jesse back, and Ruby makes her intentions clearer than most with the question, "Are you food, or are you sex?"

The full impact of that question won't be realized until the end of The Neon Demon, but the amount of conflict Laws and Stenham generate in just a few lines is astounding.  At times the dialogue sounds like a self-aware routine, most notably when Jesse talks about how the moon was a big eye watching her.  But this is subtle character building, indicating how Jesse's childhood imagination prepared her to be the center of the universe's gaze, a point made through Refn's visuals in one of many stunning modeling scenes.  There's just enough of an edge to the dialogue, helpfully punctuated by the simmering resentment of Heathcote and Lee's performances, that the silent beat following each line has us scanning the women and their surroundings for threats.

Fanning, Heathcote, and Lee are all great in their roles.  But Malone, and a surprise turn by Keanu Reeves, are astounding.  Malone has been one of my favorite performers for over a decade now, and her comfort in finding the satirical edge in unconventional material is part of why.  Much like in Sucker Punch, she plays a character who refuses to perform exactly as others expect her to, leading to a sexual encounter as mortifying as it is tender late in The Neon Demon.  Reeves unsheathes a menace so rarely seen, and deployed in small doses by Refn, that it puts to test the common lie that Reeves is an empty vassal and little more.  Look at the way Reeves holds his body, like he's right at the moment of climax and is angered by all the distractions keeping him from pleasure, and the way his vague sexual menace looms in shadows over Jesse.

All of these pieces give Refn a rich tapestry of subtext, skill, and nightmarish storytelling precision.  He lets none of this go to waste, setting the menacing tone early with a party sequence wherein an unnamed bound and gagged person is held up in the air by the waist.  The red lights flash, the synth soundtrack thumps along violently, and Jesse and Ruby's faces blend as Gigi and Sarah glare at Jesse with angry lust.  It's pure cinematic bliss, capturing then sustaining a delicate tone of sexiness and danger with every sensory tool at Refn's disposal.  That it's just one of The Neon Demon's near double-digit array of similarly powerful sensory experiences is another deeply appreciated surprise.

The predatory eyes of men in The Neon Demon hint at a world of violence we are not privy to.

A good bedfellow of The Neon Demon is Peter Strickland's The Duke of Burgundy.  Both deal with women's desires and frustrations in overwhelming sensory fashion and resist the temptation of an easy read.  Desire is complicated, same goes for frustrations, and there are just enough hints on the periphery of The Neon Demon to suggest that the predatory actions of the women are an extension of the way they're carved up for the desires of men.  But I don't want to take away from Jesse's story, of a woman who grows to think herself the center of the universe, and failing to remember that our universe circles around a massive black hole.

The Neon Demon is not an easy watch.  I have intense sense memory, and the blunt impact of the few scrapes and cuts on the soundtrack jarred my body into a defensive position.  Raw and tense as I was, it also served as the moment I realized Refn, Laws, Stenham, and all the rest involved in The Neon Demon's production had me completely.  If The Neon Demon is what it looks like when directors challenge themselves to create in a new way, then it serves as a sobering reminder of just how complacent many have become.

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The Neon Demon (2016)

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn.
Screenplay written by Mary Laws, Polly Stenham, and Nicolas Winding Refn.
Starring Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Abbey Lee, and Bella Heathcote.

Posted by Andrew

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