The UnPopular Opinion: The Neon Demon
THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!
****SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****
Nicolas Winding Refn is a pretentious guy. I mean, you would have to be to produce a films as divisive as he has. From PUSHER to DRIVE, Refn has been the target of fan love and hate in fairly equal measure. Anticipating a film that would take the next step in his evolution as a director, ONLY GOD FORGIVES left many feeling a bit empty. So, expectations were even higher when word came out that Refn would be creating his first horror film in the form of THE NEON DEMON. Set in the world of high fashion, THE NEON DEMON was poised to be one of those movies that would once again draw a line between audiences but instead was received with middling reviews and a lack of acclaim that typically accompanies all of Refn's films. After watching this film twice, I cannot disagree with the consensus more and find THE NEON DEMON to not only be one of Nicolas Winding Refn's best flms but also one of the best movies of 2016.
Watching THE NEON DEMON is not an easy task. It is not a horror film that puts you on the edge of your seat, grasping at the armrests. Nor is it an indie drama that has you contemplate the existential crises of what it means to be alive. THE NEON DEMON deftly blends both chills and drama while wrapping them in a visually stunning art project. Many reviews called the film cold and distant while also declaring it nothing more than a superficial and hollow experience. Oddly, that is exactly what Refn is going for as he takes the glamorous world of models to task for being those exact, vapid qualities. Watching this film reminded me greatly of FIGHT CLUB auther Chuck Palahniuk's novel Invisible Monsters, also set in the world of models, as well as Dario Argento's beloved horror film SUSPIRIA. THE NEON DEMON is at once a satire of the fashion industry and a terrifying glimpse into the psychological torture that beauty can force upon anyone who considers appearance the highest form of success.
One of the biggest pitfalls of being a film critic is they only tend to watch a film once. The sheer number of movies a critic must sit through is daunting and enough to turn anyone but the most ardent movie fan off of cinema. But there is a skill to critiquing a film that requires the person watching it to make judgement calls after a couple of hours. Thankfully, I am not a professional critic but rather a movie fan who happens to give his critique to an audience. I will rarely give my full assessment of a film unless I have seen it more than once and THE NEON DEMON is a prime example as to why. When I watched DRIVE, I knew instantly that I loved it. Repeated viewings simply cement that perspective. The first viewing I had of THE NEON DEMON impressed me visually and I dug exactly what Refn was trying to accomplish. Once you watch it once, the second viewing allows you to look past the glamour and beautifully composed shots and see something deeper and more sinister lurking below the surface. Many reviews claim this film doesn't have a demanding plot or compelling characters, but I implore you to watch the movie again and find yourself surprised by how much there is to unpack in this film.
THE NEON DEMON is intentionally frustrating. From the opening credits where Refn puts his initials on the title cards as if he were himself a fashionista with his own brand, you may immediately want to say "f*ck this guy. His initials, really?". But, think about it. Every decision made by Refn is intentional down to those initials. Is he really so vain that he feels he is his own brand? Possibly, but I read this small choice as a deliberate example of how designers and those in the fashion industry view themselves and their creations as the ultimate form of expression and art. THE NEON DEMON takes this to an extreme and offers us a core group of women who are all battling for success in a cutthroat world where the slightest imperfection can end your reign. That shallow vanity runs throughout the film. We are never able to truly get to know these characters as every one of them is a fake visage atop a feral being. The lone characters with any depth are all male and deliver everything from support in the form of Karl Glusman's Dean, sexuality in the form of Keanu Reeves' rapist and pedophile motel manager, controlling in the form of Desmond Harrington's photographer, or holier-than-thou in Alessandro Nivola's designer. All of these characters are looked at as being powerful and stronger than the models and yet none of them see what lurks below the surface.
It was also a bold move casting Elle Fanning in the lead role of Jesse, the ingenue whose beauty throws the established hierarchy of the models into disarray. Fanning is absolutely a beautiful girl but by no means the level of glamour all of the characters see her as. Surrounded by beautiful costars Abbey Lee, Bella Heathcote, and Jena Malone, Fanning is one of four pretty actresses who are all vying for the admiration of everyone else in the film. Every actor in the movie is good looking, male and female, which adds to the surreal nature of the film. It is hard to find imperfections in perfection which is another intentional decision made by Refn. His DRIVE actress, Christina Hendricks, makes a brief appearance as the head of Jesse's modeling agency and even her demure appearance keeps the film at a high level of sexy. Every frame of this film is full of characters the viewer would be crazy to not feel an attraction to and mimics the same way we flip through fashion magazines and see a level of attraction rarely met in real life. THE NEON DEMON is not reality but the skewed look of our world through tinted glasses. It is that skewing that makes the final act all the more horrifying.
Aided by yet another haunting and stellar soundtrack by Cliff Martinez, THE NEON DEMON moves from a deliberately paced window into the world of models to a nightmare featuring lesbian sex, pedophilia, necrophilia, attempted rape, murder and cannibalism. In a film that hazily moves from scene to scene and builds towards the insane climax so slowly, the sudden left turn into a true horror film is jarring and uncomfortable in the best way possible. While the last thirty minutes of THE NEON DEMON feel disconnected from the first hour and a half, that is yet another decision made by Refn and his crew. This movie is not meant to be pleasant or comfortable but instead is built like a beautiful song that suddenly crescendos into a cacophony of noise. The decisions made in regards to Elle Fanning's character are done so with the intention of shocking the audience and may not have sat well with some viewers, but the more you watch it, there was no other direction for the story to have gone. The consuming of beauty to make ones self more attractive is not an uncommon theme but is here taken to an uncomfortably literal place.
As far as traditional horror goes, THE NEON DEMON does not easily fall into the category you would associate with slashers or haunted house films. Genre fans and film buffs will clearly see the connections to the works of the aforementioned Dario Argento along with more recognizable names like Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch. This is not a movie for everyone but it is more than the sum of it's parts. THE NEON DEMON is packed to the brim with symbolism and in equal measure serves as a satire of the concept of modern beauty. This is a scary movie that is able to haunt the viewer with more than just shock value. If a movie makes you uncomfortable, then the filmmaker as succeeded in jarring your beliefs and forcing you to reassess your bearings. Nicolas Winding Refn has shocked us before and will do so again, but he has rarely done so more beautifully than in this film. It definitely feels like audiences and critics missed the goal of this movie and for that alone it deserves a second look. Just make sure that after you watch it you take a long look in the mirror and try to believe what you actually see.
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