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Review: The Neon Demon is Beautiful But Not Smart

The Neon Demon - Horror Movies About the Horrors of Fame

My mother used to say, “If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all.” It’s too bad for Nicolas Winding Refn that I’m not a good listener. His latest feature, and first proper horror film, Neon Demon is shot beautifully but as free of coherent thoughts as his characters.

The poorly drawn characters are as good a place to start as any. Jesse played by Elle Fanning is the main character—an orphan because God forbid the story deal with the risk of a character having a backstory and becoming interesting to the audience. She makes a speech while she’s on a date where she lists the things she can’t do well, which are many, and finishes by saying that despite all of that, she knows she’s beautiful. And for the rest of the movie that’s all she is. Not smart. Not funny. Not compelling. Not in control or even trying to be. Just beautiful. And as this beautiful character floats through the movie, things happen to her. (“Things” instead of “thing” because there were at least 2, though 3 may be pushing it.)

If it were only the one-dimensional protagonist I was criticizing, I’d fail as a critic. The Neon Demon is, as far as I can tell, trying to function on the level of ideas. A movie based more in a realistic world would have to address why Jesse doesn’t move out of the motel she lives in once she’s getting regular work, or why she calls her friend the makeup artist Ruby (played by Jena Malone) instead of the police when the woman in the room next to hers is raped and potentially murdered, or why a makeup artist is moonlighting at a funeral home because it can’t be lack of money after we’ve seen some of the jobs she’s getting. This movie isn’t striving for realism, and I’m not criticizing it for that. Spoilers ahead. 

Where it fails is in the ideas it tries to address. It wants to pin down where beauty comes from. At different times characters debate surgically given beauty versus natural beauty, inner versus outer beauty, visual versus tactile in the sex or food scene, but never enters a coherent enough attempt at an answer other than when the older women eat the younger one. At that point, we are so far away from the realm of reality, into the world of symbolism, but the connections I can draw aren’t sensical. If Refn is saying that the old are eating the young to become more beautiful, it doesn’t quite make sense because the old don’t become more beautiful in our reality. In fact, the trend in our reality seems to be the opposite. We don’t seem to be able to go a week without it coming out that a young actress has been turned down for a role for being to old. Elizabeth Banks in Spiderman being told she is too old to play Mary Jane at 28 is the latest. It could be true that the old are holding the young down in the modeling world, but it seems a bit extreme to represent that symbolically with actual cannibalism. Like extreme to the point of silliness. And if his goal is to mock the absurdities to which women will go to look beautiful, he’s failed in his conceptualization of the world.

A successful satire of beauty culture would need to do a more complete job of addressing patriarchal standards and structures women are asked to meet. He does address it briefly, showing the photographer Jack’s (Desomond Harrington) callousness toward his subjects and the unnamed fashion designer’s (Allesandro Nivola) public humiliating of Gigi (Bella Heathcote), but it’s not enough. These men want beauty and Refn never delves into why women would strive to please them, so in the end it feels as though Refn is blaming the women themselves (who are represented literally by great cats because they’re “catty.” Get it?) for tearing each other apart to meet those standards.

And then backing away from the political, the pacing is a huge problem in this film, as well. One of things that Refn does well is use long reaction shots to establish character’s emotional states. He allows his actors to act, but it slows things down too much. Between the few incidents where he borrows imagery from the horror genre, it feels like hours pass, and there’s no build-up to climax or gradations before the final horror. There are occasional awful images (the knife fellatio, the necrophilia, the cannibalism, the eyeball at the end) but the wait between stops the viewer from feeling the cumulative tension and anticipation where I would argue much of the pleasure of watching horror comes from.

There are things that Refn does well. Like in Drive and his other films, Refn uses the aforementioned long reaction shots juxtaposed with blasting music during non-speaking sequences, which helps to further establish his character’s emotional state. He uses the visual medium for all that it’s worth, and the cinematography is done very well.

Unfortunately, none of his stylistic excellence—and it is excellent—can redeem the poorly thought out ideas, poorer characterization, and emotional emptiness of the film. Refn and his fellow screenwriters Mary Laws and Polly Stenham never give credence to the idea that the beautiful young women they’re making a film about could have anything inside them other than the desire to be more beautiful, which is, in my mind, the film’s biggest failure.

Some critics have argued that the style is enough to make up for the vapid content (oddly, “vapid” is the word that I’ve heard thrown around the most in regards to this movie), but they seem to be missing that this is a movie about ideas, and that those can’t be vapid. Without the ideas, the movie is hollow and overly long, a big swing and a big miss.

WICKED RATING: 3 /10  [usr=3]

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writers: Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws, Polly Stenham
Stars: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abby Lee
Year: 2016
Studio/ Production Co: Space Rocket Nation, Vendian Entertainment, Bold Films
Budget:   $7,000,000
Language: English
Length: 118 minutes
Sub-Genre: Drama, Thriller

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Written by Ryan C. Bradley
Ryan C. Bradley (he/him) has published work in The Missouri Review, The Rumpus, Dark Moon Digest, Daikaijuzine, and other venues. His first book, Saint's Blood, is available from St. Rooster Books now! You can learn more about him at: ryancbradleyblog.wordpress.com.
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