When reports started pouring in last spring that disgusted audience members were vacating a screening of Nicolas Winding Refn’s newest neo noir-influenced horror film, The Neon Demon, I vowed I would either have my ass in a theater opening day or dive headfirst, covered in barbecue sauce, into a cannibal tribe’s ceremonial bonfire . A cannibal tribe’s ceremonial bonfire? Until now, I never realized what an apt metaphor for the fashion industry that really is. “How intriguing,” I thought, “An auteur Euro filmmaker using Dario Argento-styled photography and a John Cassavetes eye for social realism to examine the dog eat dog (pun intended) mechanics of the most vapid, anti-feminist, ageist, and intellectually-stunted industry known to the capitalist world.”
Think about it. Women and men alike are judged on a combination of genetic predispositions, good luck, the willpower to skip dessert, and usually, but not always, a financial advantage early in life that affords them the time and flexibility to spend hours padding their Instagram with photos of their abs and kale smoothies. Oh, and a healthy dose of narcissism. Be tall, look good in little clothing, and own the world. Until you hit 30 that is. Yet every single model enters the profession with the youthful delusion of eternal beauty and so few cross the brick wall unscathed. As previously alluded to, it’s an industry that is so incredibly selective, judgmental, and competitive that its risk for self-cannibalizing is 100 times greater than the nearest profession.
Of course, that symbolism was either completely lost upon the general public, deemed uninteresting by it, or audiences just weren’t ready to forgive Only God Forgives. The Neon Demon was Refn’s least successful film stateside by far. I researched the gross numbers online but I probably didn’t need to because I was one of 3 people (the other 2 being a couple) that were in the theater at an evening showing on opening day.
Why wasn’t the film more successful? It had the lovely magnetic Elle Fanning (don’t tell her big sister but I think she’s the one with the most talent), the always reliable Keanu Reeves, the massively underrated Desmond Harrington, Christina Hendricks (hot off a much beloved and critically well-reviewed TV series), rising star Abbey Lee, and genre staple Jenna Malone. It had a deliciously eccentric score composed by frequent Refn collaborator and nephew Julian Winding and an original song composed and performed by mega star Sia. My guess is a combination of bad press from Cannes, a general disinterest in Hard R horror films these days, and a rather nonexistent marketing campaign apart from IMDB. Oh, and the fact that it opened against Finding Dory.
All that said, The Neon Demon is easily one of the top 5 films of 2016 in this humble critic’s mind.
Jess, our lead, is a young gal from the American Midwest who’s found her way to Los Angeles to pursue a modelling career. She lives in a sleazy, rather questionable, motel in a bad part of town, owned and managed by a sleazy and rather questionable Keanu Reeves. She managed to make 2 friends, a slightly older good ol’ boy with a pickup truck, a camera, a love of photography, and an innocent crush and a snappy makeup artist who introduces her to the modeling inside world. Jess soon begins making enemies within the culture as her young and natural beauty is boasted and rewarded by photographers and industry professionals alike, at the expense of jealous models near the end of their sadly short shelf lives. As Jess begins to make enemies of even her friends, she stumbles into an even darker and more sinister layer of her profession where the phrase, “beauty is only skin deep,” takes on a whole new meaning.
Not since Caligula or maybe Eyes Wide Shut has there been a more tantalizing, unabashedly psycho sexual, and visually stimulating look into the heart of a cult of the flesh. With murder, necrophilia, Suspiria esque color palettes, and a deeply moving use of suspense and well placed beats of depravity that demand the viewer shower immediately, The Neon Demon rolls into the credits having fully proven its bizarre aptitude to inspire glitter and doom in rooms of light and beauty. 4 out of 4 stars.