Thursday, July 14, 2016
The Neon Demon (*1/2)
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
The first thirty minutes of Nicolas Winding Refn's latest film, The Neon Demon, really is marvelous. It presents a haunting but colorful universe, filled with beautiful but sinister people. Even the manager at the run down hotel is played by Keanu Reeves! This is the Danish filmmaker's first film since his 2013 debacle Only God Forgives, and these two films seem to suggest that he no longer has the stamina to follow through on a complete story. The plot in The Neon Demon is already incredibly slight, so how on Earth does Refn allow it to spiral out of control the way he does? And how long before we all get tired of it? The film begins with a truly glorious opening credits sequences that sets it up to be a kind of diabolical Douglas Sirk reincarnation, but like most things it alludes to, The Neon Demon doesn't seem very interested in committing to any one allusion, any one theme, even at times, any one character. Is this a overly gory psychological drama or a boring thriller? The movie's so confused, it's hard to even tell how it's failing. For Demon, Refn is returning to the winding roads of Los Angeles, for the first time since his masterpiece Drive. In Drive, LA was just dressing, a city-wide set piece where he moved all his pieces, but Demon seems to actually be about LA, its sadistic subcultures and grotesque figures - particularly in the world of female modeling. Demon doesn't give you much in the way of commentary on this seedy underbelly, and how can it? Refn cannot allow his film to become satire on an image-conscious culture when Refn is the most image-conscious filmmaker working right now. To comment on unfair beauty standards would be a self-sacrifice, it'd be adding condemnation to a surface-level society that Refn himself loves so much to perpetuate. So instead, Refn's camera floats through its action, attempting some form of objectivity which he probably achieves but to what end? With all the deplorable behavior in this film, is objectivity really the tone that Refn should be striking?
This film is resolutely bad, but it's bad in the way that Lee Daniels' 2012 film The Paperboy is bad. The quality is not in question, but seemingly everything else is. Both films are being transgressive for transgressive's sake, with no real moral stake being taken, just a collection of souped-up melodrama too tame for John Waters but too extreme for your average American moviegoer. Let's start with the first question. Why cast Elle Fanning? She's beautiful, that's for sure, and that Barbie doll innocence suits her physically for the part of Jessie, a sixteen-year-old orphan from Georgia who's come out to LA to try and make money off of being pretty. Jessie is seduced, consumed and corrupted by her new lifestyle, and that transition is a difficult task for any actor, let alone one as young as Fanning. The part is probably better for someone more seasoned, more vain; someone who already has baggage with the moviegoing audience. Demon actually employs an actress, Jena Malone, who would be perfect for that kind of part, but much like the gender politics throughout the fashion world in this film, the filmmakers surely found the thirty-one year-old Malone too old. Back to Fanning, though. Her short career has been interesting. She's only just turned eighteen and it seems like she's already spent years circling the wagons in independent films trying to find the right auteur to be a muse for. She's a terrifically talented actress who seems to have the right idea in everything except how to play a part. Not that she isn't a good actress (watch her in Sally Potter's Ginger & Rosa to prove that point), but she's too obsessed with acting right now, and not with forming a character. Watching Fanning act next to Malone in Demon reminds you just how far she still has to go. While Malone gives what might be the most dastardly sensual performance of 2016, Fanning is a cipher, like a Rubik's cube that's perpetually two moves away from being solved.
When Jessie arrives in LA, she gets a set of dramatically grotesque photos taken by a young photographer named Dean (Karl Glusman), and the photos get her a face-to-face meeting with Roberta Hoffman (Christina Hendricks, killing in a one-scene role), a big-time modeling agent who declares Jessie the real thing almost instantly. She advises Jessie to lie about her age (19, because saying 18 is too obvious), and gets her a shoot with Jack (Desmond Harrington), a famous but severe fashion photographer who lays eyes on Jessie and immediately closes his set to be with her alone. What he does with his new young toy is both tasteful and intrusive, a surprisingly artful way to exploit the young woman he's just met. Jessie's seemingly overnight rise into a full-scale modeling career catches the attention of Ruby (Malone), a make-up for models who moonlights at the morgue touching up fresh corpses. Ruby's two close friends, Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abby Lee), are also models, also blonde, and they both deal with the threat of the newly-arriving Jessie in separate ways. It's clear to Jessie that nearly everyone she meets either has it out for her or is blindly in love with her. She meets jeers from Sarah and Gigi, as well as Hank (Reeves), the ornery manager of the shithole motel which Jessie has chosen to stay. On the other end, she wows men like Dean, as well as a legendary fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola, in a good performance that is, for some reason, uncredited), who chooses her to be the last model on his illustrious runway. This decision enrages her competition, and as she finds herself becoming more and more alienated in her quest to achieve her goal, the only true friend she seems to have is Ruby, who may have more sinister ideas in mind as well. Without explaining plot details, I still feel I should mention that the film's third act completely detaches itself in any reasonable way from what I thought the film was going to do. It's this moment that takes Neon Demon from simply mediocre to truly untenable.
The ending is without coherence, but it also becomes simply unpleasant to watch, as Refn's more sadistic traits come to the surface. At his worst, the director gets caught in a bloody no-man's-land, somewhere between the lipstick schlock of Brian De Palma and the nightmarish horror of David Cronenberg, and with Neon Demon he accomplishes all of the ugliness of those two directors without any of the charm. Fanning is trying pretty hard, I think, but she still seems out of sorts in the part, and the conceit that we're expected to agree with - that she is so paralyzingly beautiful that she would bring powerful men and women to their knees - isn't always easy to go along with. If there's anything in the form of a saving grace here, it's Malone who's given the script's most outrageous moments and takes to them without hesitation. Nivola, Reeves and Hendricks are all doing good work here as well, but Refn gets distracted with laborious asides where he gets to dwell on admittedly pretty but thematically empty sequences usually focusing hard on Fanning's face lit by heavy neon colors. Refn is attempting to recreate the pensiveness of Kubrick, but his images don't mean anything. They're just shallow facades. Only God Forgives had this same problem but in spades. It's worst trait was that it was not only boring, but relentlessly and tirelessly boring. It seemed to want to impress that boredom on you while also drowning you in gruesome violence. The Neon Demon isn't that pretentious, and in its first moments it actually seems like this film might be fun, but it's middle hour drags itself to a third act that completes a totally preposterous tale, and proceeds into something totally ludicrous. I'd guess Refn doesn't really care what we think about his films, but it's still frankly disheartening to see that the same director behind Bronson and Drive make films that are so unentertaining. There are many beautiful faces in The Neon Demon, and many shots that some may call beautiful, but much like Iñárritu's The Revenant, wondrous cinematography can't hide what is simply an inner ugliness. Demon's attempt to try and become a vampiric tale in its conclusion holds no water, much like rest of the film itself.