Eat a burger and enjoy life, girls! Besides, it’s what’s on the inside that actually counts!
Just after her 16th birthday, Jesse (Elle Fanning) moves to Los Angeles in hopes of launching some sort of a career as a model. Everyone around her tells her that she’s got the look and innocent appeal for it all, making her not only the most sought-for talent on the market, but the most hated among fellow models who are still trying to make it big, but somehow, can’t seem, to get noticed. Jesse starts to notice this and even though she makes a close friend with a make-up artist (Jena Malone), she still can’t trust anybody enough to where they’re best friends of any nature. And if that wasn’t bad enough for Jesse, she now has to worry about a seedy motel manager (Keanu Reeves), who always seems to be demanding money from her for some reason, and a creepy photographer (Karl Glusman), who wants to be more to her than just a friend, but also doesn’t want to creep her out too much and scare her away. The fashion-world begins to heat up a whole lot more once Jesse enters it, which leads her to decide who to trust, and who not to trust.
Nicolas Winding Refn, for the past few years or so, has absolutely decided to stop worrying about what other people were thinking about his movies, his pretentious style, and his treatment of everyone and everything in his movies, and just do whatever the hell he wants to do. In a movie like Only God Forgives, it worked so well because every second he got, Refn took something odd, but equally interesting out of his bag of tricks and allowed for a somewhat conventional story, play-out a whole lot different than was hardly expected. Drive was less successful, in my opinion, if only because it seemed like there was a real story to assist everything and rather than sticking straight to that and making it fully work, it felt like Refn himself got bored and wanted to play around for some odd. Either way, both movies are better than the Neon Demon, but it’s still very much the same thing: Refn doing what he wants, when he wants, and however he wants it, and you know what?
I kind of love that.
Refn seems to really be aiming for David Lynch at this point where it seems like he wants to approach this story in a straight manner, but also doesn’t want to lose his points with the cool crowd. For every scene or two where it’s literally just two characters, sitting in a wide room and having an awkward, almost silent conversation, there’s another scene where the Cliff Martinez soundtrack gets turned all the way up to eleven and for one reason or another, inanimate objects start to appear out of nowhere. Refn clearly has two sides to him that always seem to battle each other; there’s the smart, plot-driven side that showed heavily in his excellent Pusher flicks, and the other, a more artsy, visually-attentive director who sometimes prefers telling his stories in a visual manner.
Neither side should work side-by-side, but Refn offers up just enough interesting bits and pieces for both, that it actually works. It helps that the Neon Demon takes place in this cruel, dark underworld of fashion where, yes, on a daily basis, people are constantly judging you and aiming for your spot, giving it something of a satirical look and feel. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s Refn’s funniest movie – not that that’s hard to be in the first place, but still, it’s worth pointing out. Sometimes, you never know if Refn’s intentionally being funny, or if his world is just so twisted and wacky that you can’t help and laugh, but either way, it mostly all works because, well, it keeps your eyes and ears glued to the screen.
Sounds stupid, I know, but it really does matter in the long-run.
The Neon Demon is the kind of movie that will spark discussion about what it means, what it’s trying to say (other than the world of modeling is terrible), or how it ends, which is actually great to have. It seems that a lot of directors and writers don’t have as big of guts as Refn does, when it comes to keeping your audience in the dark about, well, almost everything and being perfectly content with that. Sometimes, the directors/writers feel self-conscious and don’t want to be looked at as “pretentious” or better yet, “mean” – Refn doesn’t care about these labels. Actually, he probably embraces them.
It gives him more time to play around with this already-odd story, vivid characters, and slew of actors who, honestly fit each and every role to a T. Elle Fanning definitely seems to have passed her older sis as the more dominate actress and well, there’s a good reason why: She’s clearly got more versatility. As the very young and satiable Jesse, Fanning does a lot with very little; she seems naive enough to get caught and wrapped-up in the utter sleaze of this world, but we also know that there’s something darker deep down inside of her that makes us think she knows a little more than she lets on. Either way, Fanning has to do a lot here with her performance, that doesn’t necessarily consist of a lot of heavy-lifting, but allowing herself to be plain in most scenes where she isn’t the most colorful character, but then change it all around to proving that she does have a voice and remind us that, yes, she is the lead character in this tale of hers.
The others in the cast are pretty great, too, and do more than just help round out the odd characters. Abbey Lee Kershaw and Bella Heathcote, not only look alike, but are pitch perfect in their roles as two, slightly older models who are struggling to be noticed because of the beautiful Jesse’s presence; Jena Malone plays a make-up artist who seems to have something of a crush on her and it’s a fun role for someone who enjoys playing it straight; Karl Glusman, despite being terrible in Love, actually does well here as the kind of creepy boyfriend; Desmond Harrington shows up as a creepy photographer and is, well, effectively creepy; Christina Hendricks shows up in literally one scene as a scouting agent and is so perfect that I missed her the rest of the movie; and Keanu Reeves, in one of his far better roles as of late, gets a chance to camp it up as a sleazy and perverted hotel manager, always having something funny to say and working perfectly within Refn’s universe.
A possible team-up in the future? Let’s hope, as the world would be a much better place with Refn-Reeves movies.
Consensus: Not totally coherent, the Neon Demon will most likely push a lot of people away, but that’s sort of the point and it’s why Refn’s direction, as scattered as it may be, is consistently interesting, dark, and fun to think about long afterwards.
7.5 / 10
Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire