The Neon Demon (2016)
The Neon Demon (2016)

Genre: Psychological Thriller Running Time: 1 hr. 57 min.

Release Date: June 24th, 2016 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn Actors: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Abbey Lee, Bella Heathcote, Keanu Reeves, Christina Hendricks, Desmond Harrington, Charles Baker, Jamie Clayton, Cody Renee




rom the very first seconds of the film, as techno music thunders – hoping to sound either modern or like a John Carpenter production – it’s evident that “The Neon Demon” is going to be strange. The most recent example of this disquieting setup appeared in “Under the Skin”; but the obvious comparison here is “Black Swan,” particularly as the modeling industry draws parallels to the apparent cutthroat nature of ballerinas and the psychological deteriorations that can occur with achieving supremacy. But rather than showing the stresses and the physical sacrifices undertaken to dance at the apex of the business, “The Neon Demon” skips over must of the visual details necessary to establish those extremes (there are no runway shows or photo shoots – at least not in the traditional sense). Instead, this picture is all about the character’s actions toward one another, and how they are mentally transformed by the drive not just to be beautiful, but also to be the most beautiful.

The opening scene does establish the brutal nature of modeling, but with the routine misdirection of the 16 year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning) lying in a pool of blood, throat slashed, and eyes glazed over – though merely posing for a macabre photo shoot. Jesse (sporting a “deer in the headlights” look) may have just arrived in Los Angeles, residing in a trashy motel in Pasadena (run by a creepy Keanu Reeves, oddly emoting more than the rest of the cast), but she’s destined for stardom. Immediately signed to the Roberta Hoffman agency (by potential-screener Christina Hendricks), despised by fellow models Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), and befriended by makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone), Jesse is in over her head but overwhelmingly charged and rejuvenated by the attention she receives from everyone around her.

After meeting Ruby, Jesse is whisked away to a hip party, wherein director Nicolas Winding Refn can abuse his familiarity with strobe lights, psychedelic flashes of color, slow-motion, and bondage. He tries very hard to create a style through overwrought visuals, but it’s at great cost to the narrative, which drags terribly and meanders toward its uninspiring resolution. The problem with Refn’s efforts is that while he thinks he’s being artistic, his use of symbolism is actually dreadfully obvious and overstated; it completely lacks the subtlety necessary to impart poignancy or innovation. Despite injecting the immoderately plain plot with controversial (or certainly vivid) concepts like vampirism, necrophilia, and cannibalism – all literal images that blatantly represent the soul-sucking influences of competition, rejection, and ascendancy – there’s nothing clever beneath all the graphic sexuality and violence (most of which leans toward easy body horror or laugh-out-loud absurdities like dog-eat-dog/devouring-rivals motifs or the legends of Countess Elizabeth Bathory).

“God I love this color on me.” The dialogue is supposed to be authentic, but it sounds incredibly hackneyed. “I would never say you’re fat” and “Is that your real nose?” are intended to betray the doublespeak, the vapidness, or the thinly veiled insults of peers, except that they’re too common to indicate creativity. All the talk of boyfriends, plastic surgery, and sex fail to breathe life into the characters or even create brief moments of comic relief. Instead, this banal yarn about innocence lost becomes almost sleep-inducing with all of the abrasive music, cinematography, and editing that attempt to turn every moment into a dream sequence. To its credit, the film does generate a decent atmosphere, with stretched, widescreen shots that keep the focus to one end or the other for a perpetual sense of disorientation – or the notion that something could spontaneously jump into frame. Unfortunately, nothing ever does. When characters start drawing on mirrors with lipstick, it’s evident that everything is only going downhill from there – both in mental acuity and in fertile filmmaking.

– Mike Massie

  • 2/10