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Review: The Neon Demon

The Neon Demon
06.22.2016
4 10

The Neon Demon review Nicolas Winding Refn Elle Fanning Keanu Reeves

PLOT: A clueless teenager arrives in Los Angeles with dreams of becoming a fashion model, but the competition isn't going to allow her to climb the ladder so easily.

REVIEW: Is Nicolas Winding Refn intentionally mirroring L.A.'s vapid, superficial modeling industry with his vapid, superficial THE NEON DEMON, or is its slick but empty veneer just a case of the director giving into his worst inclinations? That's a question many will be left with after Refn's latest, and while I still don't know the answer for certain, I'm left with this opinion: It doesn't matter, because the movie is a ponderous slog either way.

While I consider myself a fan of Refn, I realize now that I can really take him or leave him. Like almost everybody else, I cherish DRIVE, which found the director's lush, deliberate visual style nearly perfectly matched with a violent neo-noir tale set in Los Angeles. I dig BRONSON, too, but was held at arm's length by the beautiful but inscrutable VALHALLA RISING and mostly frustrated by the pretentious weirdness of ONLY GOD FORGIVES. Fans of that Refn - the one who will draw out sequences to unthinkable lengths and bombard you with aural mysteries in order to flaunt his dreamy, experimental style - will probably find plenty to like in THE NEON DEMON, as it slinks across the screen with the pompous self-assurance that Refn's knack for pretty pictures will disguise the fact the movie has absolutely nothing new to say about, well, anything.

The Neon Demon review Nicolas Winding Refn Elle Fanning Keanu Reeves

The "neon demon" of the title is Los Angeles, I think, as it attracts pretty young things to its embrace only to corrupt and use them. Or maybe it's the allure of the photographer's light. The promise of fame? Whatever. The movie focuses on a fresh off-the-bus ingenue named Jesse (Elle Fanning, perfecting a blank stare) who arrives in L.A. without a friend or prospect in the world with designs on making it big. She quickly befriends good-natured photographer Dean (Karl Glusman) who is probably the only decent guy (even though he tries to kiss her knowing she's only 16) living in the city. She stays in a seedy motel run by an even seedier creep (Keanu Reeves in an amusingly noxious turn) and the fashion bigwigs she meets, like infamous photog Jack (Desmond Harrington) or the haughty designer who covets her (Alessandro Nivola), are heartless peddlers of beauty. But Jesse wants fame and nothing else, so she's perfectly willing to be manipulated like the Barbie doll she is.

If the guys are bad, the girls are straight-up dangerous. Jesse's arrival on the scene prompts the hatred of two dead-eyed models (Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote) who instantly identify the teen as their worst enemy. A friendly make-up artist named Ruby (Jena Malone) appears to offer safe haven, but her clear lust for Jesse indicates her helpful disposition for is nothing more than a ruse to get into her pants. Predictably, Jesse becomes intoxicated by her quick rise to stardom, willing to shun the nice guy and nestle in with the snakes and sharks who couldn't care less about her. And, just as predictably, this is a fatally unwise decision on Jesse's part.

The Neon Demon review Nicolas Winding Refn Elle Fanning Keanu Reeves

Surely, with his tendency to prefer style over substance and ability to photograph actors in peak movie-star mode, Refn can bring some cleverly devious touches to this story of how brutal L.A. can be, to the newbies and old folks (i.e. if you're in your late twenties) alike? No such luck. Any point Refn has to make has been hammered home a million times elsewhere. Beauty is only skin deep, all that matters in this town is how young you are, etc. The fact that Refn is just as obsessed with surface-level pleasures is clear to anyone, but any satire or commentary is buried underneath bright lights and sexy ladies. And that would be fine if the movie offered some excitement, but it's all long, deliberate scenes of vacant staring, slow talking and standing around in glitzy costumes. You're waiting forever to something happen, and the wait gradually becomes unbearable, and not in a fun slow-burn kind of way; in a "please god make something happen" kind of way.

Horror aficionados excited about Refn dabbling fully in the genre will be disappointed to find the director isn't all that interested in any kind of traditional horror. Oh yes, he aims to shock us with lurid moments of necrophilia, knifings and even one or two moments of nightmarish gore, but there's nothing at all scary or even unsettling about Refn's glam inferno. THE NEON DEMON is about as provocative as a racy music video. You can feel Refn grinning as he presumes to push buttons, but the joke's on him because his act is tired; if he's not careful, someone younger and cooler is just going to come in and take his place.

There can't be too much said about the actors in the film, as they're just Refn's dolls. Fanning is fairly good as the girl everyone wants, but she isn't offered any moments to shine; as with Jesse, all that matters is that she's pretty. As her rivals, Lee and Heathcote don't fare much better, but they look absolutely great (as does much of the movie, to be fair). Malone solidly conveys her character's uncertain intentions, and she definitely owns two of the film's most memorable sequences. But if anyone makes a true impression, it's Reeves; even though his scumbag motel manager subplot practically goes nowhere, Reeves oozes sleaze in a handful of amusing scenes. In a movie providing so little excitement, I'll take it.

Source: JoBlo.com

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