A film review by Craig J. Koban July 30, 2016


2016, R, 120 mins.


Elle Fanning as Jesse  /  Karl Glusman as Dean  /  Jena Malone as Ruby  /  Bella Heathcote as Gigi  /  Abbey Lee as Sarah  /  Christina Hendricks as Jan  /  Keanu Reeves as Hank

Written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

Nicolas Winding Refn’s THE NEON DEMON is a film of intoxicating, haunting, and sometimes confounding beauty.  

Where it lacks in an overall and substantial plot and pervasive exploration of its key themes it more than makes up for it as a work of pure visual poetry.  The Danish auteur previously made two of the most richly stylish and evocatively atmospheric films of recent times in DRIVE and ONLY GOD FORGIVES.  His masterful penchant for marrying stunningly abstract Kubrickian/Lynchian visuals, retrotastic synthesized music scores, and foreboding dreamscapes proudly continues in THE NEON DEMON, a film that explores the dark – make that insanely dark and depraved – underbelly of the fashion model industry.  There’s no doubt that this is as seductively stylish and hypnotizing as any of Refn’s previous films, but as a revelatory expose of his targets, THE NEON DEMON seems a bit too patently obvious and lacking in true substance. 

Set in L.A. (which was highlighted to sublime, Michael Mannian levels of dripping ambience in DRIVE), THE NEON DEMON introduces us to Jesse (Elle Fanning), a not-quite-legal Georgia gal that has just arrived in the City of Angels looking to make a name for herself in the fashion world.  She lacks very little, if any, practical skills that would allow her to secure work in any other vocation, but her natural porcelain beauty is her greatest asset, which she thinks she can parlay into a career on runways and magazine covers.  Very early on she impresses a local agent (a very good, but criminally underused Christina Hendricks) that instantly feels that Jesse has the proverbial “it” factor that nearly every other aspiring model that comes into her office lacks.  The only problem is that she’s just 16, but her new representation matter-of-factly informs her to tell everyone that wants to use her that’s she 19.  She quietly smiles, nods, and agrees to the advice. 



Within no time, Jesse begins to catch the attention of even the most notoriously picky glamour photographers in the business.  While she’s learning the ropes and climbing the fashion ladder, she’s befriended by Ruby (Jena Malone), a seemingly kind makeup artist that promises to help Jesse by watching her back.  The more attention and notoriety that Jesse garners, the more she becomes ensnared in the cruel crosshairs of fellow veteran models like Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), who are both beginning to take a strong dislike to an industry neophyte taking work away from them.  When she’s not defending herself from these spiteful vixens, Jesse is fending herself off of a particularly scuzzy motel owner (a surprisingly cast-against-type and genuinely creepy Keanu Reeves) and tries to maintain some semblance of a normal relationship with her boyfriend (Karl Glusman).  When the spoils of her newfound and affluent model lifestyle begins to take hold, however, Jesse becomes a different social beast altogether. 

I guess that THE NEON DEMON is trying to be a scathing dissection of the fanatically crazy extremes that individuals go to in order to achieve supremacy in the modeling world.  That, and it’s also trying to comment on society’s crazy infatuation with superficial beauty.  As previously mentioned, Refn’s chief failings here are in regards to his screenplay, which truly never achieves the profundity with his targets that he wants to.  On exploring the levels of cultural obsession with women as sex objects and the lengths that women go to in order to stay relevant in a damning industry that casts you out as a “fossil” when pushing your mid-twenties, THE NEON DEMON doesn’t really tells us anything that we didn’t already know about this highly scrutinizing occupation.  Aside from a nightmarish narrative detour that the film takes during its final third that sheds light on the – shall we say – real carnivorous inclinations of some of its models (the film’s core message that the model industry will eat you alive lacks subtlety altogether), THE NEON DEMON has very little substance as a meditative piece. 

Granted, that’s not really why we go see a film with Refn’s name attached.  DRIVE, ONLY GOD FORGIVES, and THE NEON DEMON reiterates why he’s one the boldest and most intoxicating cinematic artists working today.  Scene after meticulously crafted and executed scene here revels and bathes in Refn’s deliberately and lovingly composed usage of light, color, composition, and camera movement.  You can gain a sense that he labors over the most minute of moments here, transforming scenes that would otherwise be mundane and expositional into living, breathing paintings.  There’s something ethereally magical – and sometime grotesque - happening in every corner of Refn’s frame, making THE NEON DEMON – much like his previous efforts – a film to get lost in and savor.  I’ve often used the term “Kubrickian” to describe Refn, which is apt.  No other modern filmmaker understands the value of silence, holding and lingering on a shot, and when to move the camera for just the right intoxicating effect the way Kubrick did…but Refn is as close as any at eliciting his aesthetic intricacies.  

THE NEON DEMON is probably better acted than many people will admit, even though Refn’s avant garde handling of the material overall may have the negative effect of diluting the performances.  Fanning in particular is well cast, who instantaneously captures Jesse’s exquisite golden haired and wide eyed physical allure while maintaining her youthful naiveté and sincerity before she makes a dark turn for the worse and becomes consumed by a ravenous desire to be successful and desired.  Jena Malone is a whole other breed of fearless in her portrayal of Jesse’s confidant that may or may not be harboring a seedier side as well.  Malone occupies the single most appalling moment in all of THE NEON DEMON that may easily prompt many a filmgoer to flee for the exists.  It’s at moments like this when in the film when (a) you just have to admire her daring commitment to her role, (b) you realize that there’s no depraved rabbit hole lurid enough that Refn won’t jump down into and (c) you wonder whether he’s self-indulgently crossing a taste barrier that’s best left uncrossed. 

Speaking of indulgent, THE NEON DEMON reaches a boiling point in its deliriously crazy climax that finds a rather suitable and shocking ending that could have achieved a real ferociously satiric swipe at the model industry as a whole.  Unfortunately, Refn doesn't seem to know when to keep his already inflated hubris in check…and simply stop his story; instead, the film proceeds to go on and on…and on…for several more minutes and scenes, which all but zaps the twistedly macabre energy out of his tale.  There’s no doubt, though, that Refn is a filmmaker with a nearly matchless eye for beautiful imagery, and THE NEON DEMON shows him at the absolute command of his craft.  Regrettably, I never found myself emotionally attached to anyone or anything in the film, mostly because, deep down beneath its stunning façade, it’s pretty hollow and thinly scripted.  As an absorbing portrait of the bloodthirsty and predatory nature of the super models and their cutthroat industry, THE NEON DEMON is pretty lackluster.  As an epic mood piece and extraordinary visual odyssey, Refn is definitely and confidently in his wheelhouse here.  No question.


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