Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Neon Demon

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcoate, Abbey Lee, Desmond Harrington, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Alessandro Nivola, Charles Baker
Running Time: 117 min.
Rating: R 

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Nicolas Winding Refn's psychological horror thriller The Neon Demon introduces us to one of the least confident protagonists to recently carry a film. At least initially. So innocent and unsure of herself that every word she speaks is phrased as a question, there's this doe-eyed, stuck in headlights look that seems to define her. You start thinking that regardless of her looks, it may be impossible for this girl to find legitimate success as a model. After all, this is L.A. She'll be (literally?) eaten alive by the insecure, ambitious competition who can smell fear, and a serious threat, from miles away. It turns out, we don't even know the half of it.

An all-out assault on the senses brought to you by the filmmaker who previously polarized audiences with Drive and Only God Forgives is almost daring us to point out the superficiality of his latest effort. Don't take the bait. That's the entire point, even if that doesn't necessarily make it any more enjoyable to watch. Some of the content arriving in the picture's last third, and one scene specifically, is both disgusting and disturbing, making you wonder how this somehow managed to evade the MPAA's dreaded "NC-17."

The actual story, which is strangely Refn's most straightforward yet, serves as background noise to sights and sounds that aren't quite like anything recently brought to the screen. And yet, all of it works a bit better before all the subtext becomes text, and the heavy foreshadowing leads us into crazy land, the film might have seemed a little less ridiculous minus that eventual destination.  But it also may have been a hell of a lot less fun. There's no doubt that it looks and feels great, despite my lingering doubts as to whether it transcends those pleasures to become something more than a shocking horror genre exercise.

16-year-old model Jesse (Elle Fanning) arrives in Los Angeles from a small Georgia town with aspirations of becoming a model. After having her first photoshoot with a guy she meets named Dean (Karl Glusman), she soon scores an interview with modeling agency head Roberta Hoffman (Christina Hendricks), who's so impressed with her potential that she refers her to a test shoot with renowned photographer Jack McCarther (Desmond Harrington). Despite forging a friendship with makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone), Jesse's rapid, meteoric ascent draws the ire of her modeling peers, the older, more experienced Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcoate).

In an industry when you're washed up before you hit twenty five, the girls notice this newbie is accomplishing in just a few short months what they couldn't during their entire careers, as Jamie seems to transfix everyone with a youthful, fresh-faced look and appeal they've gone under the knife many times to try to duplicate. The claws are out and they smell blood, doing all they can to undermine the competition and preserve their jobs. For the shy, introverted Jesse comes the test of whether she can withstand it, or more accurately, adapt to survive in a world where looks are the most valuable commodity.

Much is made of Jamie's youth, so the casting of Fanning makes a lot of sense as the main point is that she's entirely too young to be exposed to an industry that devours its young. She also has an entirely different look that serves her well in the role, making it somewhat plausible that all these top shelf agents and photographers would be falling all over themselves when she arrives. It gets to be a bit much at times with that, but at least we get it, whereas with another another actress lacking such an distinct look, we might not. Of course, the character's fifteen, which Hendricks's agency owner quickly adjusts up to nineteen since eighteen is "too on the nose."

The others girls take an immediate disliking to her that grows with each new opportunity, the most memorable of which comes in the form of a Goldfinger-style photoshoot featuring a genuinely unsettling turn from an intense, gaunt-looking Desmond Harrington from TV's Dexter. You're kept on edge watching the whole time, both fearing for Jamie's safety yet opening yourself up to the idea that this might simply be all for the sake of some kind of twisted performance art. Either way, it's creepy, and Cliff Martinez's sparse, haunting 80's electronic score only serves to makes it that much creepier.

For a while the film constantly walks up to that line and teases, like with Jamie's interactions with a sleazy motel manager named Hank, who Keanu Reeves plays with scenery-chomping gusto in a welcome excursion to the dark side. Between this, John Wick, and his lead role in 2015's underrated home invasion thriller, Knock Knock, it's getting to the point where he's entering Nicolas Cage territory, but in the best way, where we literally can't wait to see what's next. There's some more going on here too, like an unwelcome animal intruder and the increasing sense that these models are much more than merely jealous. As this happens, a change comes over Jamie as well, with all roads leading to what feels like an inevitable showdown.

Described in its conception as a combination of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it's somewhat ironic that it's actually more successful when drawing from the former. The suspense and anticipation for what eventually occurs, and the accompanying drama driving it, is actually far more intriguing than the craziness that arrives in the final act. While it's clearly trying to make a point about how humankind's obsession with physical beauty is destroying us from the inside-out, Refn delivers it in such a silly, ham-fisted, over-the-top manner that it comes off as ridiculous rather than scary.

The last half-hour is kind of difficult to process, if we're even supposed to. As for Fanning, her performance is exactly what it needs to be, even if I remain uncertain what it's all in the service of since her character could be viewed as kind of a cipher. It's been a breakthrough year for her between this and even more resonant work in 20th Century Women, marking the evolution of a mature talent who's child acting days are now comfortably behind her.

For all the film's mind-blowing visuals and bombast, I found myself struggling to extract more than just a begrudging respect and admiration for its craft. You can only shock so much before the credits roll and you're left contemplating what it all means. cenes of necrophilia and cannibalism can leave a searing imprint, but without a connection to the characters, it only goes so far. In terms of delivering psychological thrills, it's tantalizing on more than a few levels before completely abandoning that idea in favor of pure sensationalism. The Neon Demon is meant to provoke a strong reaction and does, but the only thing you're left contemplating when it's over is whether it was the right one.

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