Movie Review : The Neon Demon (2016)
* a sincere thank you to YouTuber Marques Underwood for discussing this movie's themes with me in preparation for this review. I strongly suggest you check his Neon Demon analysis video as a complement to this piece. *
Nicolas Winding Refn is the polarizing film director responsible for the immortal Drive (one of yours truly's all-time favorites), the profoundly reviled Only God Forgives (another film yours truly enjoyed) and other hyperviolent movies such as Bronson and Valhalla Rising, a movie which yours truly happens to hate. Refn's movies have been exciting and unpredictable for moviegoers, which turned every new release of his into somewhat of a happening. Nobody knew what to expect from his latest movie The Neon Demon, which appeared to be a psychosexual exploitation-ish horror movie from the trailer. I'm here to break the good news, beautiful people: The Neon Demon might not be Refn's best movie, but it's a close second. It's fantastically well-written, gorgeous-looking, powerful and authentic.
Let's get into it, shall we?
The Neon Demon is the story of Jesse (Elle Fanning) a teenage girl from Georgia with dreams of becoming a supermodel. She doesn't seem to have any guidance whatsoever, but it doesn't matter because everyone she comes across immediately gravitates towards her. Jesse is picked up by a major talent agency almost overnight and becomes the muse of several photographers, which makes other models insanely jealous of her. Jesse has "it". That effortless authenticity that makes everyone desire her. It's a dangerous talent to have in a city where everyone fights for a mere glimpse of people's attention. Jesse is too pure for Los Angeles but she feels desired by the entire world and it's like a drug to her. Will she be consumed by the neon demon?
This movie is freakin' color coded. It obsessed me during my viewing. I believe the two most crucial colors here were black and white because they are directly connected to what the movie was about: beauty, desire and possession. Jesse constantly wears white clothes, a symbol of purity and innocence which attract the desire of the neon demon (Los Angeles) because of their scarcity. Every girl who's innocence has been consumed by the city is wearing black, as if the light within had died. Ruby (played by the transcendent Jena Malone) does and most important Sarah (Abbey Lee) does after the audition *. Sarah and Gigi's beauty have been consumed by the neon demon. They have conformed to the standard and lost what made them unique and special. The Neon Demon works as a metacommentary on the conflicting natures of art and entertainment which any creative person will relate to.
The are other colors all over this movie. Red, which symbolizes danger, is almost in every frame. It often reflects off Jesse as a mean of warning **. Purple is also heavily featured in The Neon Demon. It is seen on pieces of clothing, Jesse's makeup and is meant to symbolize pride, I believe. The first time Jesse meets Sarah and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), the women's bathroom is bathing in a purple light. Another symbol which obsessed me during my viewing of The Neon Demon was triangles. That film is obsessed with Legend of Zelda's triforce and I'm not exactly sure why. The best explanation I've heard is that it's Jesse's spiritual gateway into the world of modeling, which makes sense because Gigi or Sarah (I don't remember which) is wearing a necklace of the same symbol early in the movie and they are professional models ***. I'm not 100% satisfied with this interpretation, though because I've seen triangles elsewhere in this movie, so I believe it might have more than one signification.
I wouldn't be shy to call The Neon Demon Nicolas Winding Refn's second masterpiece. It might lack the visceral appeal of Drive, but in compensates with a gorgeous sense of style and tremendous creativity. I particularly loved the shooting scene between Elle Fanning and Desmond Harrington (another quietly talented actor) where Refn uses realistic and purposeful props in order to create a surreal atmosphere ****. Saying that I liked The Neon Demon would be an understatement. I freakin' loved every second of that film. I had one of my psychic freakout while watching it. Love him or hate him, Nicolas Winding Refn is oneof the most uncompromising filmmakers we have and he has given us another timeless masterpiece to celebrate *****.
* During her first runway, notice that Jesse wears a black dress with shiny gemstones. This is not a random choice. It symbolizes the system consuming her beauty, yet her inner light manages to shine through anyway.
** It also is on a CERTAIN CHARACTER'S PIECE OF CLOTHING EARLY IN THE MOVIE, which FORESHADOWS CERTAIN EVENTS.
*** Thanks Marques!
**** Pay attention to black and white again in this scene!
***** I forgot to mention how sneaky feminist this film is. Men are in position of power, but are completely impotent and slave to their desires. The women are calling their own shots. Another reason to cherish Refn. Male artists who create interesting female characters are rare.