Beauty is power.
When you’re beautiful, people treat you differently, and in the fashion industry, where beauty is a much sought after commodity, people will kill to protect it.
That’s one of the themes in acclaimed director Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest thriller, THE NEON DEMON (2016), along with the notion that the fasion industry really consumes— quite literally, in this case—the people in it.
THE NEON DEMON is the story of a young 16 year-old girl Jesse (Elle Fanning) who leaves home and moves to Los Angeles to become a model. She uses photos taken of her by a young man Dean (Karl Glusman) she met on the internet to get hired by a major modeling agency.
Jesse also meets a make-up artist named Ruby (Jena Malone) who takes a fancy to Jesse and basically offers to look after her. Ruby also introduces Jesse to two other models, Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee).
Jesse meets with sudden success in the industry, as she is constantly showered with praises on just how beautiful she is, and that in terms of success, she has “it.” When she enters a room, people notice. A lot is made of her natural beauty, compared to the artificial beauty of most other models who undergo seemingly nonstop plastic surgery.
She’s suddenly the hottest new thing in modeling. Eventually, her “friends” take issue with her success, Gigi and Sarah out of jealousy, and Ruby out of scorn since Jesse rebuffed her sexual advances.
THE NEON DEMON has a lot of things going for it, for a while anyway. It loses steam during its second half, and then hits you in the gut with a jarring unexpected ending that works on an intellectual level but emotionally left me disappointed.
After all that had come before it, I expected more.
Still, for a while, I really enjoyed THE NEON DEMON. It opens with the remarkable images of Jesse’s photo shoot with Dean, as Jesse is covered in fake blood. It’s an incredibly stylish way to open the movie. This style carries the film nearly all the way through, although during the second half things began to stall.
But early on, the film had me captivated. I found director Nicolas Winding Refn’s work here reminsicent of the work of David Lynch.
The images in this movie dominate throughout. From the various photo shoots, to the scene where Jesse kisses her reflected image, to the scenes of violence.
And there are plenty of disturbing images. There’s a scene of necrophelia, and also a frightening dream sequence in which Jesse’s creepy landlord, played with raw unpredictable brutality by Keanu Reeves, sticks a knife down her throat. There’s also the shocking, vicious ending.
All of these images, for me, anway, are by far the strongest part of the movie.
“Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing,” says one of the characters in the movie. I get the message this film is delivering. Beauty is power. As Jesse herself says at one point, she can’t act or write, and she isn’t particularly smart, but she is beautiful, and she can make money with her looks. In a telling scene, at a restaurant, Dean argues with Jesse’s fashion designer, saying that he believes beauty isn’t everything, that it’s inside that counts. The fashion designer disagrees, saying that he believes if Jesse wasn’t beautiful, Dean wouldn’t have even given her the time of day. Jesse rewards Dean’s sentiments by telling him to take a hike.
And I get the ending. Talk about a person being consumed by the industry she’s trying to break into! Just before this ending, Jesse says her mom used to call her dangerous, and at that moment the audience senses that Jesse is feeling dangerous. However, more importantly, Ruby, Gigi, and Sarah know she is dangerous, and for them, such a danger cannot survive.
The acting is all excellent. Elle Fanning does a terrific job as Jesse, the stunning 16 year old who takes the fashion industry by storm. She looks the part, because she was in fact 16 when she made this movie, making this an even more courageous performance when you consider her age. I remember Fanning standing out as a child actor in the Steven Spielberg/J.J. Abrams vechicle SUPER 8 (2011). As good as she was in that movie, she’s way better here.
I also really liked Jena Malone as Ruby, although her motives for taking a liking to Jesse were apparent to me from the get-go. And I found both Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee— especially Lee— uber-creepy as models Gigi and Sarah.
Karl Glusman was very good as Dean, Jesse’s friend and initial photographer. At first, especially since she met him on the internet, we’re not sure of his motives, but as the movie goes along, he reveals himself to be a decent guy, although Jesse hardly seems to notice and gravitates towards Ruby and her group, eventually severing ties with Dean.
Desmond Harrington is sufficiently cold and professional as top photographer Jack, and his nude photoshoot of Jesse is one of the more compelling scenes in the movie. I also really liked Alessandro Nivola as the intense fashion designer. In his brief time on screen, he gets some of the best lines in the movie. It’s an unbilled performance.
And Keanu Reeves also makes an impression as the creepy landlord Hank at the seedy hotel Jesse stays at. Reeves isn’t in the movie much, but when he is, he exudes raw animalistic ferocity.
For the first half of THE NEON DEMON, I was really into it. Then, about midway through, things slowed down. The strength of this movie is its visuals, and they remain strong throughout. The screenplay however, by director Refin, and Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, isn’t as strong. While I appreciate what it was saying about our attitudes towards beauty and the fashion industry in particular, the dialogue in this film, of which there’s not a lot, isn’t one of its strengths. And so, after a while, the visually stunning scenes begin to collapse under their own weight without solid support from the film’s narrative.
And then comes the ending. Jarring, disturbing, and in-your-face, it comes out of nowhere and wallops you in the gut, leaving an incredibly bad taste in your mouth— literally! Again, intellectually, I get it. The industry is all-consuming and eats up its own, and those in the industry prey upon those who they see as threats. The film takes the figurative and makes it literal.
I don’t really have a problem with this. The problem I have is in this two hour movie, I have followed Jesse’s story, gotten to know Jesse as a character, and looked forward to where she was going. Where she ends up is ultimately disappointing. Had this film been more about Ruby, then perhaps I could have digested— heh, heh– its ending better.
I just wanted more for Jesse.
One more positive is the film’s awesome music score by Cliff Martinez. It really adds a lot to the movie.
All in all, THE NEON DEMON is a flashy, artistic tale that will dazzle, intrigue, and wow you before it ultimately hits you in the gut with a raw wrenching blow that will not only take your breath away but just might turn you off to all that came before it.
As for me, I liked THE NEON DEMON, even after the ending and its bitter aftertaste.