by ALEX CARNEVALE
The Neon Demon
dir. Nicolas Winding Refn
It is difficult, so difficult to find something nice to say about The Neon Demon. There is one scene where a cougar tears up the hotel room of Jesse (Elle Fanning) and it’s obvious the two have the same eyebrows. Jesse looks nothing like a model, and it is honestly hard to believe that she is one. Everyone asks her how old she is in Los Angeles. When Robert (Alessandro Nivola) sees her for the first time, he looks like he is having a spiritual experience.
None of Winding Refn’s previous films were enjoyable on a story level either, but Ryan Gosling is so compulsively watchable that he was able to salvage a lot of what made them sort of actually dull. Here there is no Gosling to be found, which is kind of sad since he would be fantastic in pretty much every male role currently occupied by a vague Gosling lookalikes:
Alessandro Nivola is old, married Gosling
Desmond Harrington is a divorced Gosling
Karl Glusman is a Jewish Gosling
Keanu Reeves is a decrepit Gosling
As a photographer’s assistant Jena Malone is by far the most entertaining part of The Neon Demon — she appears to become what Jesse might become, and her dry humping was on point. Malone has been an impressively subtle film actress since she drove Julia Roberts crazy as a preteen in Stepmom, and The Neon Demon is only worth watching when she occupies the screen.
Malone is the cipher for the more violent aspects of The Neon Demon, which don’t really come into play until the film’s third act. Everyone in Jesse’s world becomes more and more envious of her, and the sensation that she is going to meet a grisly fate becomes relatively overpowering. “My mother said I was dangerous,” she explains to Malone, who cannot even believe that the thing she most desires is talking.
Viewing The Neon Demon made me want to watch Stepmom just so I could believe human beings had a soul again. There is this scene where Ed Harris tells his wife that he is getting married again, and she asks him, “What makes you think it is going to work this time?” and he just sits there and doesn’t make a sound.
Perhaps knowing how boring this movie is, Refn moves things along at a fairly rapid pace. Jesse nabs some various roles and the men and women that surround her become very jealous. One of them basically asks her what it’s like to be the sun, and she says, “It’s everything.”
At one point it actually seems like Refn might have some fun, and Jesse closes out a fashion show as electronic music more positively. Things go downhill quickly from there, since there seems to be an underlying point that modeling is akin to human trafficking.
As always, Refn’s lightning is the strongest aspect of his composition. He is never focused on making Jesse beautiful, which would be impossible, and instead strips her of everything: gender, identity, personality. It’s almost a surprise that her hair never gets cut off in The Neon Demon. Instead she is merely transformed into a more exaggerated version of herself that cannot help but be more appealing to those around her.
The Neon Demon probably would have been a lot more enjoyable as a silent film, and it disappointing that Refn backed off this approach after seeing how unfriendly it was to audiences in his last project, Only God Forgives. “True beauty is the highest currency we have,” espouses Nivola at one point, and this is about the general emotional depth of this project, which probably would have been on the cutting edge in the late 1930s.
Maybe The Neon Demon is intentionally bad, like an act of self sabotage? At that point the tremulously poor dialogue would start to make the slightest bit of sense. Keanu Reeves plays the manager of the motel that Jesse lives at, and his mock-threatening attitude towards women and young people is the only evidence of self-awareness in this turgid shitshow. He puts a knife down Jesse’s throat, and we are kind of sad this is only someone else’s dream.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.