Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘The Neon Demon’ is Gorgeous and Hollow

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Did you know that there are a bunch of pretty, hollow people populating Los Angeles seeking fame and fortune? If only someone would make a movie about the talentless backstabbers that are determined to climb to the top through nothing more than their sheer physical beauty. After all, nobody has ever tried to skewer life in Los Angeles on the big screen before. Luckily (depending on your perspective), Nicolas Winding Refn is ready to take aim at the life of glitz and glamour in the City of Angels with The Neon Demon. The latest film from the provocateur Refn, The Neon Demon is an aggressively unpleasant film that relishes in the superficiality it’s attempting to skew. Typically, a film this repulsive would earn a flat-out negative review, except you have to take into consideration that the unpleasantness of The Neon Demon is the very intent of author.

The threadbare story revolves around Jesse (Elle Fanning), a young model who has just moved to Los Angeles seeking a career in modeling. When we first see Jesse, she is modeling for Dean (Karl Glusman), an aspiring photographer who found the young model online. Shortly after the session, Jesse makes acquaintances with Ruby (Jena Malone), a makeup artist who takes the young girl to ritzy party where Jesse draws the ire of competing models Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee). Jesse is living in a motel in Pasadena run by an unscrupulous manager (Keanu Reeves) where she has to contend with a wide variety of issues. It doesn’t take long for Jesse to obtain representation from Jan (Christina Hendricks), a powerful modeling agent, and quickly becomes the new it girl. But rising to the top puts a target on the young girl’s back, and she must either adopt the cruel sensibilities to survive or be eaten alive by the competition.

At first, The Neon Demon has a wry, sardonic sense of humor with the callousness of the self-absorbed, beautiful people that reside in its Los Angeles. Refn takes his time with scenes and set ups, and for the first hour or so it mostly works as a scathing screed against superficiality. The casual cruelty of the beautiful people takes on a darkly comedic tone as does their simple moments of discussing the virtues of plastic surgery. Yet it doesn’t take long for Refn to find himself and the film as a whole falling into that very same pit of superficiality with nothing more to say than “These people are hollow and cruel.”

Heavily stylized scenes of a dolled up Fanning in a colorless void with a glimmer of neon color amidst the darkness symbolized the descent of Jesse’s innocence into the world of superficiality, yet Refn only uses this moment as a catalyst for moments of depraved sex and violence, sometimes combining the two into scenes of crude sexual violence. That’s when the film completely lost me, as it seems that any and all attempts of satire and commentary that were so present in the beginning have been erased in favor of an ugly provocation of the audience without anything else behind it. The stylized costumes, the soft lighting exuding a dream-like haze over the images, the lens flare that is carefully placed over Fanning’s face all seem to work in union for a thematic message that is nothing more than preaching “Beauty is so ugly,” like a halfwit poet lacking in self-awareness about just how trite and casual his observations really are.

I would say that if you didn’t care for Nicolas Winding Refn’s last film, the nihilistic revenge tale overflowing with oedipal themes Only God Forgives, you’re likely going to have similar reaction towards The Neon Demon. Both films seem to relish in their unpleasant aspects while featuring some rather nice cinematography and the pulsating synthesized score of Cliff Martinez. But I can’t help but escape the notion that Refn is like a really bad stand-up comedian peddling in off-color jokes that don’t land. These two movies feel like they’re made by someone who feels that he’s the smartest guy in the room, like the critical reception of Only God Forgives pushed him even further into a need for ugly provocation.

Part of me wishes I could enjoy the films of Nicolas Winding Refn more, but his commitment to pretentious ugliness leaves me thoroughly cold. With each successive film I find tidbits of moments that border on striking visual poetry that are always undermined by the filmmaker’s oppressive heavy-handedness. Perhaps for those that live outside of the greater Los Angeles area will find something profound about Refn’s observations about the hollow beauty contained in many of its residents, but living here reminds me how unimaginative such an observation is. It’d be like making a two-hour movie about how the sky is blue. Just because the intent of The Neon Demon is to be aggressively unpleasant doesn’t mean I have to like, and it certainly doesn’t mean that Nicolas Winding Refn has anything profound or interesting to say. If the characters of The Neon Demon are vacuous vampires sucking of the physical beauty of the innocent, the filmmaker behind The Neon Demon is a vampire in his own right, one sucking off of trite observation and his own self-importance.

The Neon Demon
  • Overall Score


Aggressively unpleasant, The Neon Demon is Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest cinematic provocation, one that takes aim the vacuous world of modeling in Los Angeles employing a similarly vacuous style.

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