REVIEW: 'The Neon Demon' is a provocative thriller that gets lost in its artsy visuals

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Of all the progressive things to happen in 2016, one of the more positive has been our sharpened focus on the way women are portrayed in pop culture. While it’s true that some debates (like the pointless shouting match over the Ghostbusters remake) haven’t gotten us very far, at least we’re actively talking about and critiquing works that fail to represent women in the way they deserve.

Maybe it’s that active discussion that led Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn to make The Neon Demon. To date, the majority of Winding Refn’s movies have been defined by a sort of hypermasculinity. The title character in Bronson (Tom Hardy) is an animalistic psycho who represents some of the darkest aspects of the male mind, while the Driver (Ryan Gosling) in Drive embodies a hardened, yet effortless, sense of cool that blurs into rage.

In these movies, female characters aren’t an afterthought; they seem deliberately sidelined, though not in a malicious way. Both movies are designed to take a long, hard look at their main characters as solitary individuals, and cause the audience to question their actions.

It makes sense, then, that Winding Refn would want to flip this around and do the same for women. So he sets The Neon Demon in a world that’s known (and criticized) for its hyperfemininity: professional modelling for fashion houses. The film presents us with women who would do pretty much anything in their pursuit of beauty and of influence in their industry. And while Winding Refn exaggerates this idea to the extreme to make a point, he deserves some credit for taking on the topic, as opposed to making yet another film about a man pushed to the brink.

Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee as Gigi and Sarah, two models who feel sidelined by Jesse.
Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee as Gigi and Sarah, two models who feel sidelined by Jesse.

The Neon Demon follows Jesse (Elle Fanning), a 16-year-old aspiring model who’s just arrived in Los Angeles. Despite her apparent naïveté about the business, Jesse immediately begins getting noticed by talent agents and designers. They fall in love with what they see as Jesse's natural, unenhanced beauty, a quality that makes her competition seem artificial. As Jesse books more and more jobs, her rivals become obsessed with either getting what Jesse has, or erasing it entirely - even if that means resorting to violence.

Perhaps the most effective part of the film is how Winding Refn approaches the jealousy that the other models have for Jesse’s looks. By casting Fanning, an actor who doesn’t have the kind of tall, stereotypically sculpted appearance we expect from a professional model, the director encourages the audience to wonder why the fashion industry would prize Jesse over the others. In a way, we actively share the feelings of Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee): “Why her?”. And if asking that question then seems prejudiced or unfair, then maybe that’s exactly how Winding Refn wants us to feel.

There’s also a provocative treatment of the difference between the male and the female gaze when it’s directed at women. The few men in the film, like Hank the motel owner (Keanu Reeves) and an unnamed fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola), become expectedly transfixed by Jesse. In the case of Hank, it’s mere lust, but Nivola’s designer is moved more by what he sees as idealistic beauty that he can control.

In both cases, the men’s gaze is based on a singular desire, whereas the other women in the film look at Jesse with complex layers of emotions, including envy, self-pity, loathing, fear and ambition. And yet these differences still lead to the same objective: anyone who becomes obsessed with Jesse ends up wanting one thing: possession.

Jena Malone as Ruby, a makeup artist who becomes disturbingly obsessed with Jesse.
Jena Malone as Ruby, a makeup artist who becomes disturbingly obsessed with Jesse.

Unfortunately, I had to work pretty hard to derive that much meaning from The Neon Demon. Winding Refn may have changed up his subject matter this time around, but he hasn’t lost his habit of drenching a film in uber-stylish cinematography and gory violence. Long sections of the movie are devoted to visually striking compositions that refer back to all sorts of cinematic influences, and in these sequences the storytelling takes a back seat to the pretty pictures.

Evidently, Winding Refn is trying to create a moving version of a glossy haute couture magazine, complete with wild lighting choices and unexpected framings. The problem is that these dreamscapes don’t do much to build up the tension that’s needed to make the brutal final scenes shock us in the way that they should. With the pacing slowing to an ooze at points, when the bloody climax of the movie arrives, we should be thoroughly disturbed. The actual effect, however, is more like, “Oh, so that happened. Ick.”

Winding Refn also can’t decide on an arc for Jesse. Is she an innocent girl who’s corrupted by her profession into becoming a glamourized monster? Or is she merely a victim of a world she never fully understands? The director seems to toy with the idea of making Jesse into a two-faced industry climber, but the character never really coalesces into someone we either root for, pity or hate.

Nicolas Winding Refn is nothing if not a divisive filmmaker, and your reaction to The Neon Demon will likely fall into one of two camps: people who find something to chew on in his films (despite the excess and exaggeration) or people who just can’t buy in on his brand of Euro-artsy “filmmaking from the future”. To be sure, there were plenty of the latter at the screening of The Neon Demon I went to: as the third act came, I could hear quite of bit of snickering and muttering of “Come on!” during the more chilling parts.

As much as I want to reward the film for how it tries to examine the ways we portray, objectify or compete with women, the movie can’t fully articulate what it’s trying to say, instead getting distracted by its own lurid imagery. Even so, just like a fashion show presents clothing concepts that would rarely be seen in day-to-day life, maybe The Neon Demon will eventually become a stylish catalyst for other films with more practical ideas on a vital topic.

The Neon Demon get two and a half stars out of four.

Two and a Half Stars

What did you think of Winding Refn’s new movie? Does it have something useful to say, given the filmmaker’s preoccupations? Or is it just a pretentious faceplant on the catwalk? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!