Movie review (kinda): “The Neon Demon”

I finally got around to seeing the most recent film from director Nicholas Winding Refn, last year’s The Neon Demon, a couple of days ago. And I’ve been thinking about it ever since, so it seemed like a movie worth writing about.

Unlike Refn’s previous films, 2011’s Drive (which was universally admired) and 2013’s Only God Forgives (which was nearly universally panned), The Neon Demon turned out to be the kind of movie that polarizes people — you either really, really loved it, or you really, really hated it. I went in curious as to which camp I would end up falling into, and came out even more curious because I found myself squarely in the middle. There are things in The Neon Demon that I really admired, things that I would even argue approach virtuosity; and there are also things in The Neon Demon so clunky and amateurish that they would even be embarrassing in a student film, much less one made by a major director with a real budget. It’s a great film and a terrible film, all at once.

But first, for those of you who haven’t seen it — which, given that its domestic theatrical release only grossed $1.3 million, is almost certainly all of you — a brief plot summary. The Neon Demon is the story of Jesse (Elle Fanning), an aspiring model who has come to Los Angeles to pursue her dreams of stardom. It turns out that she is so beautiful that she achieves these dreams in something like a week, which must be nice. But her meteoric rise changes her, and brings her to the attention of a range of predators, who all want to carve out a piece of her “It factor” for themselves.

If the above plot summary sounds kind of thin, that’s because it is. The plot of The Neon Demon is a gossamer thread, not so much a story as a reason to hang scenes together in a particular order.

But those scenes!

Refn has always been a filmmaker with a strong visual aesthetic, and he reinforces that reputation in The Neon Demon, which is a gorgeous film to look at. Refn’s worlds are made of shiny plastic; everything is glossy and reflective, modern “minimalist” style taken to absurd extremes, and the soundtrack is full of chilly electronic music. This style can make his films feel a bit clinical, a bit distant, but that works here, because he wants us to feel distant from his subjects. Everybody in The Neon Demon is reprehensible in some way or another — even Jesse, eventually. They’re all part of a perverse, sick system that feeds on its young, and Refn wants us to observe them the way we’d observe a bacillovirus through a microscope, or a shark through a pair of binoculars. We aren’t intended to empathize with these people so much as we are to marvel at how evolution has produced such marvelously efficient killing machines.

And Refn knows how to use the tools of the filmmaker to make scenes that are about more than just what the camera is observing. There’s one scene in particular I’m thinking of here, about halfway through the movie, where Jesse goes to her first real professional photo shoot. The room is full of people, with one wall draped with a huge white backdrop for the photographer to shoot his models against. But when Jesse walks in, the (male) photographer brusquely dismisses everyone else from the room, leaving only himself and Jesse. As the two float dreamily against the white backdrop, completely isolated from the rest of the world, the photographer begins to consider her — and both Jesse and the viewer realize, our stomachs sinking, that it’s not clear if he intends to photograph her or assault her. The light in his hungry eyes could be interpreted either way. In this age of Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein, this scene is maybe the best visualization I’ve ever seen of how terrifyingly vulnerable it must feel to be on the receiving end of what feminists call the male gaze. As a dude, that’s not something I’ve had to confront in my own experience, so it was fascinating (and a little sickening) to be taken through it vicariously.

So that’s what’s good about The Neon Demon. What’s bad, then? Hoo, boy. Where to begin.

Let’s start with the third act. If the first two acts of the movie are social commentary, the last one veers into horror-movie territory, as the figurative predators that surround Jesse become actual ones. I won’t go into much detail to avoid spoilers, but let’s just say this: if I asked you to imagine the most thuddingly literal way to tell a story about how the fashion industry eats its young, you would come up with something very much like Refn does here. It’s overwrought and underthought, and I imagine it’s where a lot of people who hate this movie fell off the train.

There’s also a problem with the central performance by Elle Fanning as Jesse. I don’t mean to say that it’s a bad performance, per se; Fanning is a good actress and does good work here. The problem is that it’s not the performance the script calls for.

The movie is constantly telling us that Jesse is a thermonuclear sex bomb, so beautiful that she blows her competition — professional models — out of the water the instant she walks into the room. Everyone who looks at her is instantly and visibly affected by her charisma; one casting director’s face makes it looks like he’s having an orgasm, just from looking at her (!). She’s supposed to be magnetic, an unstoppable force. But Fanning’s Jesse never really comes across that way. Even in the third act, when she’s been relieved of her na├»ve small-town innocence and has fully embraced the power she possesses, we never see in her what everyone in the movie keeps telling and showing us they see; Jesse is beautiful, but not so beautiful as to make grown men and women fall to their knees and weep. The script calls for Helen of Troy, but that’s not what the movie delivers.

(Note that I’m not blaming Fanning for this — I’m not sure any actress could live up to the promises The Neon Demon’s script makes for her character. It writes checks that even the greatest actress would have trouble cashing.)

Should you watch The Neon Demon, then? I dunno. If you like Refn’s modernist aesthetic and are willing to put up with some undercooked writing to get it, then you will find a lot to like here. If you don’t like that aesthetic, or if you expect social commentaries to come to the table with deeper ideas than “boy the fashion industry sure is screwed up, huh,” then you won’t. And if you have a partner or friend you enjoy arguing about movies with, you should definitely see it, as it will give you plenty of things to argue about.

“The Neon Demon” is available for streaming now on Amazon Prime.