The Neon Demon (2016)
Studio: Amazon Studios & Broad Green Pictures
Release date: September 27th, 2016
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Note: For further thoughts, here's a review of The Neon Demon from this past June.
Who knows where The Neon Demon will ultimately rank in my (purely hypothetical) list of this year’s best horror movies, but I am fairly confident that it’s my favorite idea. I mean, Nicolas Winding Refn basically went out there, made a Jess Franco movie, and somehow convinced a studio (Amazon, for the record—bless them) to distribute it to multiplexes. You can’t help but hear Refn giggling in the background throughout the whole thing, not only at said studio but also at audiences waiting for him to make another film as relatively accessible as Drive. Instead, his follow-up to Only God Forgives is only less esoteric in the sense that The Neon Demon all but verbalizes its themes and preoccupations via on-the-nose dialogue. You can’t miss what this film is about, not when it has characters insisting “beauty isn’t everything—it’s the only thing.”
And yet, you also have to wonder if Refn doesn’t continue to giggle at anyone who sees the surface of The Neon Demon—a film that’s about deceptive surfaces—and takes it at face value. On a superficial level, it’s tempting (if not easy) to see the film as a nasty parable about young model Jesse (Elle Fanning) dark descent into the fashion industry, a hellish underworld of seedy photographers, catty rivals, and pimps masquerading as hotel owners. It’s an exploitation film (itself masquerading as an art film) about exploitation, particularly as it relates to female bodies: all of this is true and quite difficult to miss, if I’m being honest.
However, merely beholding it as just another pretty face with an obvious message would be making the same mistake as the vultures surrounding Jesse. Just as they underestimate her power and self-awareness, so too is it tempting to sort of write off The Neon Demon as another movie about Hollywood corruption, debauchery, and misogyny. It takes a crucial step beyond this, though, by insisting that Jesse endures a hellish ordeal precisely because she’s so goddamn beautiful. That she knows and flaunts this hardly makes her vain, and far be it from Refn—who monograms his own film’s credits, for fuck’s sake—to condemn her for this. Instead, he completely sympathizes with his muse, going so far as to allow her to haunt her tormentors in a rather unconventional fashion. Los Angeles may eat Jesse alive, but the film also features a wry instance of her rivals’ conscience eating away at them.
It follows, then, that Refn’s ode to beauty is itself a completely sumptuous, exquisitely crafted work of art. Each frame is meticulously crafted regardless of how ugly their contents are: even a pile of vomit looks like a delicately placed accessory. It’s a film with the perverse soul of Jess Franco and the eye of Dario Argento, making more or less the mash-up of my dreams. The nightmarish contrast between beauty and ugliness—in its sometimes obtuse, abstract glory—makes for an uncanny effect unlike anything else that managed to play on several hundred theater screens this past summer. That it didn’t exactly meet with an enthusiastic audience is hardly surprising—this is a film that’s destined to be a cult favorite. Besides, The Neon Demon practically provides its own argument for itself: like Jesse, this is a film that’s just too damn beautiful for this world.
If you didn’t manage to catch The Neon Demon in theaters, now is the perfect time to catch up. Released right on the eve of October, Amazon Studios and Broad Green Pictures’s Blu-ray release arrives just in time to fill your “weird, Euro-horror style shit” quotient for Halloween season. Going with the high-def option is a no-brainer since the film aims to dazzle with every frame, and the presentation does not disappoint here. Few recent home video releases will show off your display’s contrast and color range, meaning this is a reference-quality disc.
Beyond the audio commentary with Refn and Fanning, the extras are a bit sparse: there’s a five-minute discussion with the director and composer Cliff Martinez about the film’s score, and a minute-long fluff EPK piece featuring some brief remarks from the cast and crew. Anyone wanting a complete dissection of the film will be left wanting, but I have a feeling The Neon Demon is the sort of film that’ll earn a more robust edition at some point down the road—well, assuming we even still have physical media by that point.
Audacious, weird, and crafted from the recesses of Refn's brain housing zero fucks, The Neon Demon not only rules, but it's also a sharp rejoinder of the "style over substance" critique. Who says style can't be substance? Certainly not Refn. comments powered by Disqus Ratings:
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