Natural beauty is extremely rare, and often mesmerizing beyond one’s wildest imagination. In a super glossy world, where magazine covers and movies determine what is beautiful and what is not, humanity is lost in the process. This very cold, hard reality is brought to film in Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon. Starring Bella Heathcote (In Time 2011, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies 2016), Jena Malone (Sucker Punch 2011, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire 2013), Abbey Lee (Gods of Egypt 2016, Mad Max: Fury Road 2015), Karl Glusman (Ratter 2015, Love 2015), and Elle Fanning (Super 8 2011, Maleficent 2014), The Neon Demon has an interesting cast of young talent intertwined together. Matched with supporting roles from the likes of Keanu Reeves (The Matrix 1999, Constantine 2005), based on the billed actors alone, it is already a drawing card. Pile on the ultra surreal imagery and overtly artistic approach, The Neon Demon is perhaps one of the most talked about films of 2016.
Set in modern times, the film begins with a beautiful, young girl by the name of Jesse (Fanning) who relocates out to Los Angeles, California to pursue a modeling career. Only sixteen years of age, Jesse drops out of high school only to be thrust into the dark underworld of modeling. Compounding this daring risk, Jesse is all alone, an orphan of sorts, with both parents reportedly deceased.
Immediately garnering attention on the scene, with pure skin and beautiful natural features, Jesse seeks out the help of an amateur photographer named Dean (Glusman). Amidst her introduction to Dean, she is also earned the interest of a makeup artist by the name of Ruby (Malone). From here, Jesse remains in constant contact with Ruby everywhere she goes, along with Ruby’s two model friends by the name of Gigi (Heathcote) and Sarah (Lee).
Blindly, not knowing what she ahead of her, Jesse signs on with an agency, immediately becomes a photo project for a top of the line model photographer named Jack (Desmond Harrington: Dexter series, Rescue Me series), and becomes the object of visual affection to all who cross her path. Seeming like she is headed to becoming a massive star, envy mounts in the circle of Ruby, Gigi, and Sarah. Seeming Dean is Jesse’s only real friend through it all, she tosses him away for the spotlight within grasp, leaving her open to a horrific demise.
A rather slow moving film, The Neon Demon uses dialogue extremely sparingly with most of the story’s effect delivered through imagery. While enough information is provided for the viewer to grasp where the story is going, at times, it feels like there could be more plot development. That said, this is not a film big on character development or emotion. It has a very cold, dark, and pretentious vibe to it. Clearly the filmmaker’s intent, the audience will develop no attachment to any character offered, with the exception of Dean.
The character of Jesse herself is one to empathize with from the standpoint that she is a young girl with no direction, no family, and no friends. Then, when she dismisses Dean, she loses all redeeming quality and has been taken in by the temptation of glamour. As for the characters of Ruby, Gigi, and Sarah, they are nothing less than empty vessels that will stop at nothing to become stars. While this may seem as a negative to some viewers, it only makes The Neon Demon more effective in its objective to create a feeling of detachment.
While the first half of the film moves slowly, leaving the audience wondering where exactly this will all lead, the second half really becomes rather disturbing in many ways. Going from sparse dialogue, to practically none, all that is shown is scene after scene of somewhat incoherent imagery. Understandably more of a surrealism approach, to many, it may be a little too overdone, to the point it feels like a bad drug trip at times, thus may lose a lot of viewer’s attention. Nonetheless, The Neon Demon’s dead pace comes to an abrupt end with no resolve, leaving the audience empty and confused.
Certainly a film of interest, allegedly, when shown at the Canne Film Festival, some were booing and while others cheering upon its conclusion. That raises the question, why is The Neon Demon so polarizing? Well, it is quite simple, it strikes a nerve subconsciously, making the audience uncomfortable in their own skin. It brings to light a very dark and shallow part of culture, one that is most sadly look at as normal.
This in mind, the character of Dean is the most intriguing in The Neon Demon, expressing human qualities of compassion, thoughtfulness, and loyalty. Perhaps Dean symbolizes the saving grace for humanity? Nonetheless, The Neon Demon is the type movie that you either love or hate. For fans of indirect messages and surreal art, The Neon Demon is a winner. For those looking for a film that has more of a story within, it will fall short.
Through it all, the saving grace for both sides of the argument is the absolutely astounding cinematography at the hands of Natasha Braier (XXY 2007, The Rover 2014), which is complimented by the eerily beautiful soundtrack of Cliff Martinez (The Fifth Element 1997, Drive 2011). These two aspects alone make The Neon Demon worthy of at least one watch. Regardless of one’s opinion, The Neon Demon digs so deep under the skin it will haunt viewers for days after an initially viewing. CrypticRock gives The Neon Demon 4 out of 5 stars.