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Neon Demon, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Squad Ghouls"
2 stars

Over the first decade or so of his directorial career, Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn slowly established himself on the international movie scene with such works as the violent crime drama “Pusher” and its two sequels, the violent biopic “Bronson” and the violent Viking saga “Valhalla Rising” before having his big breakthrough with 2011’s “Drive.” Although the film owed more than a little bit to the works of such noted genre auteurs as Michael Mann and Walter Hill, it enough things going for it—a slick visual style, a soulful turn from Ryan Gosling as an antihero willing to jeopardize his life for the sake of a woman he barely knows and a standout performance from Albert Brooks, cast way against type as an alternating hilarious and terrifying crime boss—to become a moderate hit and to greatly expand Refn’s fanbase, who were now eager to see what he would come up with next. That, alas, turned out to be “Only God Forgives” (2013), a savagely violent and staggeringly pretentious Bangkok-set drama about a drug smuggler (Gosling) pressed by his monstrous mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) to avenge the murder of his brother—a guy whose own depravations included the grisly slaughter of a 13-year-old prostitute, mind you. This was the kind of disaster that was so wrong in so many ways that it almost confirmed the belief among Refn’s more ardent fans that he was actually some kind of genius—after all, an ordinary hack would never have dared to dream up something like that film in the first place, let alone convince people to put up the money to shoot it and appear in it. It was such a commercial and critical disaster—even his proponents had difficulties justifying its existence—that it seemed to serve as a kind of deck clearer that would help set the stage for his next film without laboring under the expectations of his previous works.

Now his latest film, “The Neon Demon,” has arrived and the good news is that it is indeed better than “Only God Forgives,” though that says much less about its intrinsic qualities than it does about the sheer awfulness of that earlier film. A would-be horror film/social satire set amongst the cutthroat (among other body parts) of the Los Angeles fashion industry, this is a film that is so utterly insane that it practically comes at you frothing from its impeccably made-up mouth. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem—in a season where practically every major film seems to be working from the same basic playbook, the idea of watching one that plays by its own rules has more than a little appeal—except for the fact that it is crazy in all the wrong ways and not in any of the interesting ones. It wants to maintain some kind of balance between the cool and cruel that might be labeled transgressive in theory but which turns out to be too ridiculous to come across as anything other than a sick joke that has been badly told and which ultimately chokes on the punchline. Here is a film that wants to deliver a message—albeit a crashingly obvious one—about the dangers of a society that places an inordinate amount of importance in pretty-but-shallow surface images over everything else, only to wind up succumbing to that very same condition itself.

Our heroine is Jesse (Elle Fanning), an ambitious girl who, immediately following her 16th birthday, arrives in Los Angeles with a fake ID, a handful of photographs (n which she portrays a grisly corpse) taken by Dean (Karl Glusman), a hunky young shutterbug that she met online, and a dream of making it as a model. Of course, thousands of girls try to do the same thing every year and fail miserably at it but, according to the head of the modeling agency (Christina Hendricks) that signs her, Jesse is the rare one who has that kind of star quality that separates the top supermodels like Kate and Cara and Cindy from the anonymous faces and bodies adoring the pages of the Sears catalogue and which no amount of cosmetic augmentation can possibly hope to replicate. Her fellow models, especially current local top dogs Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lane), certainly recognize this and they hate the newcomer practically on first sight for being younger and naturally possessing the qualities that they have to fake. Besides Dean, the only other one to show Jesse any kindness is Ruby (Jena Malone), a makeup artist who practices her trade on models during the day and corpses at night or maybe it is the other way around.

The other models are right to be worried, as it turns out, because Jesse does become an overnight sensation—a top photographer (Desmond Harrington) sees her and insists on shooting her (albeit naked and slathered in gold makeup) and a designer (Alessandro Nivola) wants her to be the closing model for his next show. At first, Jesse is bit bewildered by her success but before long, she begins to fully grasp the power that she is able to wield because of her beauty and poise and begins to display the same kind of snarky and sullen attitude that Gigi and Sarah had been sending her way. At the same time, the innocence and purity that she projects begins to attract a palpable sense of menace into her life. Everyone—her fellow models, the creepy manager (Keanu Reeves) of the fleabag motel where she is staying, the recently and cruelly dismissed Dean and even the normally sweet-natured Ruby—seems to be acting strange and disturbed and it all leads up, as well it must, to a Grand Guignol-style finale that will probably never be forgotten by anyone who actually manages to make it to the end.

Seeing as how the last few years have seen a number of incredibly self-serving documentaries and biopics revolving around the fashion industry that attempt to make their subjects come across as the most noble, humble, talented and world-changing individuals that one could ever hope to meet, the idea of setting a story in that world in which only the strongest and cruelest survive while everyone else is chewed up and spit out has an undeniable appeal, I suppose, but “The Neon Demon” pretty much squanders it all in virtually no time. The first half of the film has a few moments of inspiration here and there as Refn and co-writers Mary Laws & Polly Stenham guide us through the ins and outs of the modeling industry with a certain degree of wit, in not much in the way of insight. (There is a funny scene in a restaurant in which Gigi insists on having the waitress read the day’s specials even as Sarah points out that there is no chance she would actually order any of them.) The second half of the film, however, careers straight into horror territory as the film transforms into a giallo-inspired nightmare of grotesqueries designed to make viewers lose their lunch even quicker than most of the models up on the screen, culminating in a last-minute plot development that is liable to have even Refn’s most ardent apologists at a loss to explain. (Put it this way—there is a scene in which it is strongly implied that we are listening to the rape of a 13-year-old girl and that is perhaps only the third-ickiest moment in the film.) Then there is that final scene, a moment about which I will only say that I have a strong suspicion that it was the first image that came to Refn’s mind and the rest of the film was merely an excuse to get to that point. Between these scenes and the queasiness of seeing an actress as young as Fanning placed in such borderline exploitative situations, this is a film that wants to be a prime example of bad boy cinema—the kind that all but dares you to watch it—but it just proves to be merely bad.

As anyone who has read my stuff for a while should know by now, I do not necessarily have a problem with highly stylized films that are little more than a bunch of elaborately staged set pieces strung together in the most tenuous manner imaginable in order to create the most lurid thrillers imaginable. Hell, some of my favorite filmmakers, such as Brian De Palma, have built their entire careers on such things. Refs is clearly familiar with the works of such filmmakers because “The Neon Demon” is chock-full of homages, in-jokes and out-and-out thefts from the filmographies of the likes of David Lynch, David Cronenberg, Dario Argento, Darren Aronofsky, Stanley Kubrick and, in the film’s odds touch, the immortal Russ Meyer. Refs knows how to replicate the surface details of their films but for a film that rails against an industry concerned only with glossy exteriors, he has virtually no grasp on the things that made their films click. Take a film like De Palma’s “Dressed to Kill,” which I just happened to see again right before the screening of “The Neon Demon.” It too is a film which is essentially a collection of extended violent set pieces designed to the buttons of most viewers and where many of the plot particulars do not exact cohere if you think about them for more than a few minutes. However, “Dressed to Kill” works beautifully because De Palma has populated his set pieces with funny, quirky and interesting characters so that we actually have a rooting interest in what happens to them. By comparison, the characters in “The Neon Demon” are so trite and flatly drawn that it is well nigh impossible to generate any working interest in them. Even Jesse becomes an unpleasant bore in the second half and when the film wants us to sympathize with her again towards the end, it is impossible to make that shift.

This is not, I hasten to mention, the fault of Fanning, who has taken an impossible role in an impossible film and makes far more with it than most other actresses could have managed. There are other minor pleasures to be had here and there. Visually, the film is oftentimes ravishing to look, even if the oftentimes grisly displays suggest what might result if “Vogue” and “Fangoria” ever decided to trade places. Most of the actors wind up getting subsumed by the style but Keanu Reeves manages to break free of that with a hilariously depraved turn as th sleaze ball motel manager. For his part, Refn is able to create a certain degree of suspense and uneasiness through much of the proceedings (at least until the end, when things just get too silly) but never finds a satisfying way of paying it off with anything more than a series of increasingly desperate designer depravities that may shock viewers momentarily but which never manage to get under the skin.

Because of the extreme nature of some of those depravities, “The Neon Demon” may wind up becoming some kind of cult item among the kind of people that you probably would not want to sit next to in a darkened theater. For everyone else, it will prove to be little more than two endless hours of watching Refn transform “Black Swan” into an exceptionally ugly duckling.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=30478&reviewer=389
originally posted: 06/23/16 12:18:52
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User Comments

10/10/16 Langano Style, little substance. 3 stars
7/15/16 Louise Loved the mood of it - it is metaphorical and says a lot about the beauty business. 5 stars
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  24-Jun-2016 (R)
  DVD: 27-Sep-2016


  DVD: 27-Sep-2016

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