The Neon Demon: They’re Coming to Get You, by Scott Nye
The latest film from a trash filmmaker with the sensibilities and tasteful restraint of an antisocial 17-year-old who left home a bit too young, The Neon Demon is indefensible and guileless. Its thesis is simple, bordering on simplistic, but its method of getting there is, if not inspired, then certainly unexpected. Nicolas Winding Refn, awestruck as ever with the cast he assembled, finally found one worth indulging. His overlong, somewhat inelegant set-ups were no friend to Ryan Gosling’s occasionally-robotic stillness. Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, and others have more nuances to play and more resources to play them with. This is not the film of a mature adult, but it is unrepentant and hypnotic and flat-out gross, and it’s hard to resist a film so excited about its own existence.
Fanning plays Jesse, a sixteen-year-old orphan fresh in Los Angeles, hoping to make her name as a model. She’s living in an awful motel. She’s going out with the guy who did her test shots. She seems extremely small and vulnerable in a land crawling with predators hoping to score off of her one way or another. All the other models hate her, especially Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), who are aging out of the business and desperately reconstructing their faces and bodies to stay in it. Jesse’s beauty is “fresh”, as her many managers and photographers and even make-up artist, Ruby (Malone, who steals this show front to back), constantly remind her. Refn, not exactly one for brevity, treats us to scene after scene of her click-click-clicking her heels along eternal silent session halls as disenchanted beauty experts suddenly stare up in awe of her underage flesh. And yes – the film is aware of how creepy that is. And it does not allow you to not think about it.
In some way, everyone Jesse meets wants something from her. Sex, companionship, money, the image of her youth somehow transferring to them – she’s a gold mine that’s just been cracked open, an untapped oil well. And there are plenty of business structures in place through which they can claim her. And no, the predatory nature of the beauty industry is not exactly fresh ground to cover. That’s not what’s interesting about The Neon Demon. What’s interesting is watching Refn stage a nightclub or a photo shoot as the same emotional experience. What’s interesting is watching Fanning survey a room, equally certain of her dominance and corruptibility. She’s wise enough to fake a signature without asking; she’s less able to wrangle out of an unfair charge when the motel manager (Keanu Reeves) leverages one on her.
What’s interesting is Refn’s willingness to let a shot linger, to let his cast draw out a moment for an eternity. His framing relies largely upon looking straight on at his subjects, letting symmetry do the talking. The extent to which this has a sizeable effect varies by scene; I’d be interested to watch this again knowing that the vague threat of the supernatural never quite flourishes, though the macabre certainly does. And often. What makes the shots and scenes work is his cast, working in that familiar (at least since Drive) mode of being potentially under some sort of mind control, which has a lot more effective a corollary here than it did in Drive or Only God Forgives – they’re all under the influence of beauty standards, man. It also distinguishes Fanning, who gives a more open performance, and makes everyone she encounters feel something like a pod person, or a resident of the Overlook Hotel. There’s something just a little bit threatening, even when they’re friendly.
It would be perverse to give away its unlikeliest turns, but suffice to say that it is sometimes a pleasure to sit in a room with people who did not know what movie they had signed up to watch, and witness them come to terms with that. It’s not that audacity is a particularly noble trait. And The Neon Demon probably isn’t high art. But it’s gorgeous to look at, its performances are deliciously sculpted, and it’s a total blast to watch. Where some might praise a superhero movie or an action film for letting us get our rocks off on base pleasures, I say, give me The Neon Demon. It clicked right into the me of middle or early high school, ready to expose the fraud of the our image-obsessed society and tear it all to shreds. In the absence of some evolved intellectual discourse, I’ll more than happily take the jugular-slashing serpent from Hell that is The Neon Demon.