“Are you food or are you sex”
Fame: all that’s glittered and gold, the intrinsic “it” quality we’d kill for but never do. That aura with an expiration date; beauty, confidence, radiance, and whatever other label outsiders use to transform you into a commodity to be bought, sold, and exploited within the tiny window before someone younger takes your place. This is Nicolas Winding Refn‘s The Neon Demon, an unexplainable concept jumping person to person without definition or discernment. It consumes the souls of unwitting vessels, makes them and breaks them to create monsters barely hidden beneath a thin sheen of beauty. You either flaunt it, embracing it to reach its full potential, or let it destroy you so it may search for another victim willing to pay the price without buyer’s remorse.
Beauty is currency, Refn’s exposé of the fashion industry treating it simultaneously as precious and volatile. It gets to models’ heads, empowering them with a tenuous strength that proves no match to the vulnerability of being unseated on the pedestal as they unseated their predecessors. For plastic surgery connoisseur Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and cold as ice Sarah (Abbey Lee), this world is everything. To stay means to do whatever’s necessary—sabotage, surgery, homicide. They stay close, riding each other’s coattails to remain relevant. They keep their eyes open for fresh new faces, fearful of their youth and dismissive of their appeal. It only takes one girl to throw a wrench in their very existences. An envious rage growing to consume her intangibles, the very ones they’ve already lost.
This innocent country bumpkin just arrived to Los Angeles for stardom is Jesse (Elle Fanning). She knows nothing and no one save an online amateur photographer named Dean (Karl Glusman). He’s sweet and compassionate—everything you would assume this character ripe for predatory malice wouldn’t be. She relies on him, genuinely appreciating everything he does until better prospects begin chipping away at her purity. Was it all an act or does Jesse transform herself once the demon digs in its claws? Her mother always told her she was dangerous and Jesse obviously understands her own allure despite the constant shy looks downward and cutely oblivious smiles. Maybe the demon was always inside, waiting to pounce. Maybe it was using her, teasing her, readying for a more fertile host.
Refn enlisted British playwright Polly Stenham and American playwright Mary Laws to assist him in crafting his first script with female leads that speak a lot more than his previous three laconic creatures of violent aggression (from Valhalla Rising, Drive, and Only God Forgives). They help bring his penchant for calm collected fury into a world we on the outside already assumes possesses it. Any profession with a wealth of potential employees so profoundly out-numbering the actual jobs contained is inherently vicious. But that doesn’t mean everyone involved must be so outwardly represented as such. There does need to be nuance, manipulative tricks to draw enemies closer to see their mettle. For every Gigi and Sarah there must be a Ruby (Jena Malone)—friend and protector.
Where Refn takes these characters is a hellish nightmare of blue and red strobe lights against Cliff Martinez‘s brilliant electronica score. The style on display is immense; you could watch The Neon Demon devoid of anything but its music and bask in its formal wonder. The shattering of psyche, glowing triangles disembodied from reality as premonitions of progress or revolt, and dead eye stares of glamor’s glittery surface shimmering in slomotion draw us in with a sexualized heat. These women aren’t fantasies dream girls, the film not a misogynistic affair exploiting their bodies. They’re instead empowered by their sexuality, wielding it like a weapon against the world and each other. They have teeth bared while the men dutifully dote. These roles have been reversed purposefully, but not perfectly.
Here is where I wonder if the film is truly just a hollow façade. The idea that the women are predators and men emasculated bystanders unable to defend themselves from their lustful beauty only works if it’s a constant. It’s not here. One man proves as chauvinistic and brutish as men in the real world are perceived—Jesse’s landlord Hank (Keanu Reeves). He is practically a pimp, sampling the weak, helpless transients who arrive at his doorstep in need of cheap room and board. His violence and Jesse’s fear of it becomes an incongruous detail I can’t seem to wrap my head around. Because if she really is the badass in waiting we’re to believe by her sociopathic reversals from compassionate naiveté to precision usurper, what is with this moment of terror?
You could say it’s to show how she isn’t ready to embrace the demon within, that part of her life in the country away from the ruthless bright lights never truly disappeared. But that feels like a cop-out. The way it plays out makes me think Refn and company needed a reason for Jesse to call Ruby and take shelter in her open arms and they defaulted to unhinged male invoking disgustingly violent tendencies. It feels lazy, the entire back half of the film rushed to drive its horror elements through the roof with unforgettable aural and visual splendor. Whereas the start brings to mind Mulholland Drive and its intricacies of character and plot, the end focuses so intently on the danger and grotesque that it forgets its motivations.
I love the idea of consuming one’s enemy—the Highlander vibe of there being only one cutting through the cattiness of an industry to lay its malicious cravings bare—and the final scene is one to be seared onto the back of your eyelids for weeks. I loved Lee and Heathcote relishing caricatures with extreme severity, embodying their cartoonish levels of jealousy as dramatic necessity. The dynamic between Desmond Harrington‘s revered photographer and the girls is delightfully up-ended from our preconceptions; Reeves is enjoying himself playing the brute; and Malone provides an awe-inspiring duplicity despite never truly changing her character after the switch. And Fanning is perfectly cast: her porcelain features a direct contrast to Gigi and Sarah’s angles to allow her the power to command attention.
Similar to Drive, though, the style’s brilliance can’t quite overcome the sense that Refn loses his way. He lives in a realm of divisiveness and loves to watch his work impact viewers strongly no matter the direction of their impressions. He plays with the language of genres and repurposes it in a way that makes going to the theater crucial again. This is the type of filmmaking the industry needs to save itself—obtuse, difficult, formal triumphs that aren’t afraid to fail. Would I like a bit more substance underneath the candy coating? Sure. Would I want him to sacrifice what he’s doing now in order for that to happen? No. It may not be as deep as some pretend, but it’s still an exhilarating experience.