Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Neon Demon

By Sati. Wednesday, September 7, 2016 , , , , , , ,

Nicolas Winding Refn is a weird guy. We all heard of his bizarre feud with Lars Von Trier. Apparently throughout production the of The Neon Demon, when filming was to resume, he wouldn't yell "Action!" to set things in motion. Instead he yelled "Violence, motherfuckers". Then there is the fact he is one of the directors who uses the color best in modern movies, yet apparently he is color blind and can only perceive contrast. Then it turns out he is one of those dudes who would use those takes that went a bit too real than they were supposed to - Abbey Lee accidentally punched Elle Fanning for real. Because of Fanning's genuine reaction, Refn ended up using that take for the final cut.

But one thing that I think we all know? He makes divisive movies.
The Neon Demon, which premiered during this year's Cannes film festival is one of those films. The film received both boos and cheers upon its premiere with someone even screaming "Fuck you, Liv" upon seeing "for Liv" line (Refn dedicated the movie to his wife Liv). I was worried approaching this, I'm not big on style over substance stuff, but on the other hand female-led thriller horror about cutthroat environment sounds so much like two of my all time favorites. So is the Demon closer to the great Drive or to Only God Forgives, which is one of the worst things ever?

I'm pleased to report it's the former. It just may be my favorite movie of the year. Granted it is probably thanks to my penchant for this particular subgenre or the fact that I simply have not seen a lot of movies lately, but for so little substance on the surface, Refn smuggled surprising amounts of it in other things sneaking in information about characters in glances, props and production design. In the effect what I dreaded could come off as pretentious and boring perfume commercial (minus blinking Gosling) was actually a very engrossing film and I was surprised when I checked my watch to discover I'm actually more than half way through it.
Much like Black Swan, The Neon Demon leaves enough to viewer imagination to keep us guessing and dissecting the movie. The film is absolutely drenched in occult symbolism giving it a sinister vibe (though admittedly a movie about models, the world's most dangerous predators, already has quite enough of that vibe). The film has actually much less explanation than the original script. We see characters do things, we see why they do what they do. We however don't see the middle - how do they come to the decisions as to what they do? How did they come to be this way? It doesn't really distract you from the story and it gives people plenty of room to theorize.

Add to that the sheer number of shock factor. The film has not one but two of the most shocking scenes of the year, both of them improvised. There is also some random stuff here and there that I have no idea what it meant (it involves blood and moon). Refn and his actresses aren't silent and give explanations, the problem is that their explanation means nothing when what we see on the screen is so much stranger than reality. Then there is this one scene with Jesse encountering a gigantic triangle that you can straight up interpret as the beginning of demonic possession. You know where I saw something like that last?
Refn also improved when it comes to making a really tense and disturbing scenes. The most disturbing thing about Only God Forgives was that these talented people were wasted on that incomprehensible shit. The Neon Demon delivers several really terrific moments - there is one moment where Elle Fanning's Jesse, barely sixteen, is left alone with a male photographer she just met. He tells her to strip. They are left alone. Refn paints the whole thing with such dread you can imagine what may happen and then the whole thing turns much more innocent than what it could have been and also weirdly sensual.

Another scene which was probably the film's most disturbing involves Jesse listening to a thirteen year old girl in a room next to hers getting raped and potentially murdered. Refn drops one of the most impressive shots of the film in there with Jesse pressing her ear and hands to the wall, as seen from the other side of the wall. The film did a really great job of showing that all that beauty is really just barely above surface of filth and Hell on Earth.
As good as The Neon Demon is at capturing its metaphors, there are some bits missing from the film's original script that I really missed. Christina Hendricks' modeling agency chief part is shorter, missing the moment where Jesse sees the portrait of her when she was young, and as she compliments her for her past beauty, the character grows hurt and sensitive. The character of Ruby was actually changed for the better, giving her sinister vibe in the film. The last scene in the script was better but still what we've got here was really great too.

As for acting Elle Fanning is a bit underwhelming but she has shining moments - like when she meets the designer and does a walk for him (though Alessandro Nivola's acting almost blew her off the screen completely). She sells all of her character traits, naivety first and then extreme smugness. Keanu Reeves is very good as the sleazy motel owner and Hendricks is memorable in her single scene. Bella Heathcote, whom I remember as dead-eyed inappropriately young girl Johnny 9-Digits was romancing in Burton's Dark Shadows is surprisingly great as a model addicted to plastic surgery.
But it's Jena Malone and Abbey Lee who steal the show. Malone is fantastic as deceptive, lonely, tragic and dangerous Ruby, a role that asks a lot of the actress and drives her to participate in some of the most daring scenes I've seen in a while. Malone walks the thin line between creating someone we feel for and someone we are afraid of, in the end making her Ruby fascinating to watch and very enigmatic.

Lee, who was just spectacular in last year's Mad Max: Fury Road, is hypnotic as Sarah - a model past her prime ready to do whatever it takes to get back into the spotlight. It's a true sign of Refn ability to create interesting characters and Lee's terrific acting that even after we see Sarah do something horrible and repulsive we still feel sympathy for her when she lets out a smile as someone she wanted to notice her finally does.
The Neon Demon may be thin on plot but its by design - the film is set in the brutal world of fashion, where people are disposable and judged solely based on their looks. Still, Refn brings a lot of interesting new elements to the tale - letting the audience fill in the gaps with their own imagination and introducing some out of this world elements which work as allegory but may as well be interpreted as fantastical plot points that push the movie into supernatural horror genre.

With its vivid colors and pulsing score by Cliff Martinez, it's more Suspiria than it is Black Swan, with its heavy reliance on visuals instead of psychological layer of the characters and the story but the film's hypnotic quality and enigmatic narrative really glues you to the screen, much like Drive did.

88/100
The Neon Demon (2016, 118 min)
Plot: When aspiring model Jesse moves to Los Angeles, her youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will take any means necessary to get what she has.
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writers: Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws, Polly Stenham
Stars: Elle Fanning, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves

16 comments:

  1. I definitely plan to see this next month for the month devoted to horror and suspense. After all, it has my boo who I hope will do another film with NWR and I still like Only God Forgives.

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  2. In contrast to yourself, I have to admit I am one the ones who loved Only God Forgives, it was one of my favourite films of 2013. I'm looking forward to this one, sadly didn't get time to see it in the cinema.

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    1. Ah, then I think you will like this one! I know OGF is actually well liked by a lot of people and I admit it had brilliant things - like Martinez's score - but overall I was bored by it and thought it had no real focus

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  3. what an in depth-review, glad you enjoyed it as much as I did! have to agree, I was obsessed with abbey lee and her performance. and I'm die-hard jena malone fan since I've seen donnie darko so many years ago.. hope you have a great day!

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    1. Thank you! Lee is such a breath of fresh air, I hope she has a long and awesome career as an actress

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  4. Hey awesome, you saw it! I'm queing it up, I have been waiting on - and yet another movie your blog turned me onto :)

    Comparisons to Black Swan -and- Suspiria??! Daaaaayum I gotta see this movie NOW!! The scenes you talk about sound so juicy I can't wait to dive into this. Sounds like this is a proper creepy, horror flick. I like that you teased but didn't give anything away. Nice stuff. :)

    Curious, did you like it better than the VVitch?

    Funny you mention his last two films. I thought Drive was great at the start but lost its momentum, whereas I loved Only God Forgives. Admitedly I had NO idea what was happening, but like you said about Refn, I couldn't take my eyes away.

    Seems I'm in the minority on that one though, Drive had me glued for the opening scene and that was it. I'd have loved it if they extended that tense opening scene into a whole movie. That's actually where I thought the movie was going when I first watched it, so I wound up disappointed. I think I need to re-watch it

    Anyway, sorry for the rant! Great to hear that one of the movies you were anticipating turned out great for ya. I can't wait to see it :D

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    1. I didn't like it better than The Witch - it's more enjoyable viewing but it's not a better movie, The Witch was fiercely unique and incredibly well made, TND is more 'fun'

      I really hope you'll like it!

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  5. Amazing review! This comes out on Netflix DVD at the end of this month, I've still been looking forward to it even with reviews being all over the place. My theater dumped it after less than a week :(

    I'm so happy to hear it's nowhere near as bad as Only God Forgives.

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    1. Thank you! Oh sweet Lord not much is as bad as OGF )

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  6. This is probably the only positive review I've read for this film...and now I want to see it again!!! I'm all in for Malone realness here, too.

    Only God Forgives was such trash.

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    1. So...I just watched this...and HELL YES, I'm with you 100%. My favorite of the year, for sure. I was so blown away by this one, I think mainly because my expectations were SO LOW, but I just don't get the massive amounts of hate this one got. Bizarre, divisive, OTT, sure...but Refn pulls it off brilliantly.

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    2. So glad you dug it! It will probably remain in my top 5 by the year's end mainly 'cause I saw few films this year and I cannot see that changing any time soon

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  7. I don't know what I expected/wanted from the movie, but I just didn't get it. I guess I just compare everything to Drive with this director, and that's the wrong attitude to have. Loved Lee and Malone. They're so great...I just feel like they deserve better than this, you know? meh..

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    1. Haha, well this is certainly polarizing movie. I loved it but I can understand why it was booed :)

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