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Catching up: The Neon Demon (2016)

Updated on September 14, 2016

Director: Nicholas Winding Refn
Cast: Elle Fanning, Jenna Malone, Karl Glusman, Desmond Harrington, Alessandro Nivola, Abbey Lee, Bella Heathcote, Christina Hendricks

It frustrates me that I’m unable to embrace the works of director Nicholas Winding Refn like some people are. His movies are always a joy to look at, but are almost always difficult to sit through. He’s got a great sense of style, has no doubt interesting things to say, but during the final forty minutes of his movies, he unleashes scenes of such graphic and nauseating gore that it takes me out of the movie. That’s what happened with 2011’s Drive (I was one of the few who couldn’t embrace that film), and it happens again with his The Neon Demon.

The movie takes place in the Los Angeles fashion world, a world that is, according to Refn, very cutthroat, dog-eat-dog, and misogynistic. For all I know, he’s right on the money. In this movie, we get scenes of women stand waiting in their undergarments to walk for industry people who seem disinterested in them, one photographer clearing out his studio so he can get his teenaged model to strip, and one woman bragging about the number of times she’s had cosmetic surgery. “Beauty isn’t everything,” says Robert Sarno (Alessandro Nivola), a douche-y fashion designer. “It’s the only thing!”

Elle Fanning stars as Jessie, a 16 year old who moves to LA to pursue a career in modeling since her parents “aren’t around” anymore. She’s not talented, but she is pretty, and she believes that’ll be enough to make a living on. Almost immediately, she’s a success. She finds herself an agent (Christina Hendricks), befriends a make-up artist named Rose (Jenna Malone), who also works at a morgue, and captures the attention of all the big names in the industry. She also makes enemies in fellow models Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), the latter who has a very well written scene with Jesse in which she refers to herself as a ghost.

They're not at all as friendly as they look! D:
They're not at all as friendly as they look! D:

Jesse appears to be dating an aspiring photographer named Dean (Karl Glusman), who in the movie’s opening scene, is photographing her on a couch with her throat slashed. Dean is perhaps the only decent guy in the film. He treats Jessie with respect, pays for the damages done to her motel room by a wild animal, and stands up for Jessie when the pervy manager (Keanu Reeves) at the motel Jessie stays at makes several inappropriate comments about her. Needless to say, he doesn’t get very far in the business.

You see, with the fashion industry, you have to sell your morality and your soul, and if that means eating and bathing in the blood of your competitor, then so be it. These things actually happen in the final portions of The Neon Demon. We see a woman sitting in a bath tub of blood, and a model swallowing a regurgitated eyeball whole, as well as another lovely scene where gallons of blood begin pouring from one woman’s vagina. And do I need to get into the scene involving lesbian necrophilia? Please tell me that I don’t.

While I guess I know what Refn was going for (cannibalism signifying the dog-eat-dog nature of the business), he allows things to go way too far. When I’m watching a young woman humping a corpse, I’m not thinking about how terrible the fashion industry is. I’m thinking, “Good Lord, when is this scene going to end?!” Sure, it’s all artfully filmed by cinematographer Natasha Braier; there’s not a second of this movie that even sort of looks bad. Yet all the beautiful images in the world can’t disguise the fact that Refn allows his message to get buried beneath a series of truly revolting scenes, which is a shame, because for a while, he was really working with it in interesting ways.

It's always the pretty ones you have to watch out for! O_O
It's always the pretty ones you have to watch out for! O_O

The Neon Demon is an exceptionally well-made and well-acted movie (Abbey Lee is especially good), and it’s never boring, but you might not be too sad once the end credits start to roll. For a movie that deals with a woman losing herself for the sake of fame, Black Swan was able to express its theme quite hauntingly, and without all the hurl-inducing shock effects that plague the final moments here. The Neon Demon may have wanted to expose the fashion industry as something truly ugly, but in the end, it winds up being ugly itself.

Rated R (somehow) for disturbing bloody images, gore, necrophilia, profanity, sexual content, an attempted rape, graphic nudity

Final Grade: ** ½ (out of ****)

What did you think of this movie? :D

Cast your vote for The Neon Demon (2016)

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