The Neon Demon is a 2016 psychological horror film directed by Nicholas Winding Refn, written by Nicholas Winding Refn, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham and stars Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Desmond Harrington, Christina Hendricks, and Keanu Reeves. The film follows the life of an aspiring model as she traverses the treacherous world of fashion.
Alright, let’s put our cards on the table here. There is a palpable reason as to why Refn’s films are so polarizing to audiences. It’s a matter of taste and also how much of “artsy schlock and gore” one is willing to endure in exchange for some cool visuals, symbolism, and music. I, for one, belong to that little intersecting group of people who like and don’t like this “piece of art” in equal measure.
The aspects of this film which do not work for me are extremely clear. I do not like the hackneyed plot. Yes, it is narrated in a very unique way but the plot in itself if just plain dull. The characters, except for Jena Malone’s Ruby, are vapid and uninspired. I’d guess that it was an artistic choice to show the vapid nature of beauty in general but I’m not buying it. Even though I’ve been on the fence with Refn’s films, I have always connected to his characters. Be it Ryan Gosling in both Drive and Only God Forgives or Mads Mikkelsen in Valhalla Rising. I’ve liked them across the board. This film has no such characters. The film touches on one of my long-standing pet peeves, stop saying a certain character is special and show us why he/she is special. Finally, what the hell happened to Keanu Reeves’ character in this? Can someone explain that to me, please?
Now for the other side of the coin. I like what this movie has to say. It’s not a groundbreaking message. Damn, the movie Showgirls had the same message to offer and we all know how awesome that is but this film bullied me into liking it because of how it looks and sounds combined with the unsettling feeling it induced in me.
Mild Spoilers Ahead
I was not fully onboard with the film until the third act came along. I was lukewarm about it through the first 80 minutes as it just felt like artsy overindulgence with some downright ridiculous line readings and blank slate characters. The film took a hard left turn into some unexpected territory and, I say this begrudgingly, I liked where it went and how out of the ordinary it got. My whole outlook towards and takeaways from the film were completely warped. The film made me ask myself some serious questions about the allure of beauty and how much of a stranglehold it had on me personally.
This is my perspective, so please take it with a grain of salt.
I had always thought of myself as a person who did not pay much attention to how a fellow person looked and I still do stick to that sentiment. But somewhere on the surface (I wouldn’t cheapen this realization by using the cliche of “deep down”), I still find myself being nicer, more receptive, more engaged etc., with a person who is put together to my liking. This is not to say their opinions or words hold more water than any other person but I tend to be more open to initial exchanges with said appealing person.
“They might fall off the radar within the first sentence, owing to their mental capabilities”. I wrote that line as an asterisk to my aforementioned theory and I can see that there in lies the problem. The problem with self-justification and the feeling of self-righteousness. Am I right to think to way I do or should I condition myself into thinking with the herd? Is it right to be appealing and get your voice heard early or should you stick to your guns with idealism and risk being left behind?
I always knew this side of me existed but the weird tone and how forthcoming the film was about the harsh realities of the world made me question how healthy my thought process was. I could suddenly use this train of logical reasoning with everything from beauty to status to reputation to physical power to a myriad of other things which governed how I responded to people and how inferior or superior it made me feel.
The final scenes of the film had some clear lessons to impart without taking sides. There are two characters who commit a certain violent act and they deal with the consequences of said act in wildly different ways. Yes, these characters are metaphors for different kinds of people and are not to be viewed as actual human beings. But, we have seen people like this. We have observed the levels of depravity one might go to in a single-minded pursuit of success and acceptance, be it on TV shows or in real life. The extent the film goes to, to show this phenomenon caught my eye and arrested my senses.
Refn has often called himself a pornographer when it comes to his ultra-violence. And for some deranged reason, I like watching it. Maybe it’s because it’s so artfully done or maybe I enjoy seeing the extent to which a human mind lets itself run. Whatever the logical explanation maybe, I like the delivery of those scenes. I like the message coming out of them. It’s a deep dive into someone’s view of the world and it comes off as unabashedly honest. I appreciate that.
Now, I’ll go meditate or listen to pop songs for a few minutes to get myself out of the vivid and frankly discomforting reality of The Neon Demon for obvious reasons.