Tuesday, June 28, 2016

In Theaters: THE NEON DEMON (2016)

(France/US/Denmark - 2016)

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Written by Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham. Cast: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Keanu Reeves, Christina Hendricks, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Desmond Harrington, Alessandro Nivola, Charles Baker, Jamie Clayton, Stacey Danger. (R, 118 mins)

With his latest film THE NEON DEMON, DRIVE director and cult filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn is aspiring to be the same kind of poking-with-a-stick provocateur as his fellow Danish countryman Lars von Trier. Refn's last film, 2013's hypnotic and hyper-stylized masterpiece ONLY GOD FORGIVES (infamously booed at Cannes, which is essentially a badge of honor, if not the entire endgame to guys like Refn and von Trier) is a key influence here, at least in terms of the throbbing synth score by Cliff Martinez, the obsessive perfectionism of the Kubrickian shot composition, and the red and blue Dario Argento colorgasms. But THE NEON DEMON is Refn's worst film, a huge disappointment that looks like the equivalent of an ONLY GOD FORGIVES B-side, with the visual and aural elements crammed into a puerile, simplistic, and embarrassingly heavy-handed metaphorical allegory that's part supernatural spin on BLACK SWAN and part good vs. evil lecture on whatever it takes to get ahead in the Los Angeles modeling world. One senses around 3/4 of the way through that it's all a goof to amuse Refn, no doubt chuckling to himself thinking about how cineastes will sift through every last bit of faux symbolism and gawk in astonishment at some of the shocking imagery on display. Sure, THE NEON DEMON is the most transgressive summer release to hit mainstream multiplex chains in years, but it feels like lukewarm leftovers otherwise: Refn seems like he's just copying himself, and even the score sounds familiar and uninspired. The busy Martinez--a former drummer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers back in the Freaky Styley days-- has composed some of the most memorable film music of the last several years, but even he appears to be on autopilot here, with only the sights and sounds of an early club scene hitting the exhilarating, intoxicating heights of DRIVE and ONLY GOD FORGIVES.

A proverbial wide-eyed innocent just off the bus and on her own on the mean streets of L.A., Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a 16-year-old orphan posing as 19--"18 is too on-the-nose," she's told by her agent (Christina Hendricks)--and trying to make it in modeling. She befriends nice-guy photographer Dean (Karl Glusman of Gaspar Noe's LOVE), who takes some shots for her portfolio, and at a test shoot, she meets makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone, in the film's best performance). Ruby senses Jesse is something special, and more or less takes her under her wing, advising her how to navigate the pit of vipers that is the world of fashion modeling. A natural beauty of virginal purity who catches the eye of every photographer and designer she meets, Jesse quickly earns the jealous derision of Ruby's friends Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), models in their very early 20s who have undergone extensive cosmetic surgery and are quickly aging their way out of the business. It doesn't take long before Jesse is well on her way to becoming the next big thing after a photo shoot with starmaker Jack (Desmond Harrington) and closing the latest show by L.A.'s hottest fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola). It's the designer who drives home the notion that "Beauty isn't everything...it's the only thing," passive-aggressively chastising Gigi and her cosmetic artifice. As Jesse is indoctrinated--in an almost ritualistic, sacrificial way--into this new world, she rejects the sincere affections of both Dean and Ruby, starts lording her gift of beauty over others, and the seething Gigi and Sarah decide they've had enough of the ingenue usurping the attention and adoration for which they've had themselves almost completely surgically reconstructed but have yet to reap the benefits.

I suppose it's some kind of auto-critique that a film calling out the shallowness of surface beauty is all shallow surface itself. THE NEON DEMON is an exercise in tedium for its first 90 minutes, riddled with cliches and going nowhere slowly, and by the time the really sick and twisted shit starts in the last half hour, it doesn't come off as shocking, but rather, juvenile and attention-seeking. Refn has nothing new to say here about L.A., fashion, or fame--he's just trying to outrage people and get a reaction. All the foreshadowing about "fresh meat" and the like should give you an idea of where at least some things are going, and it ultimately plays like an unfilmable short story from the halcyon days of splatterpunk, a lot of stuff that reads better on the page than it can possibly play out on the screen. Refn manages to create a few striking images here and there, mostly in the early going (the aforementioned club scene is a highlight), and Hendricks has a memorably acidic line about small-town girls pursuing modeling because "some guy named Chad in the food court told them they were beautiful enough to be a model." But there's an awful lot of very little otherwise, from extraneous supporting characters who serve little or no purpose (Glusman's Dean is absent for long stretches, then just vanishes altogether, and Keanu Reeves seems to have put in a day's work tops, as the repugnant manager of the fleabag motel where Jesse lives) to its painfully obvious metaphor for the way "the scene" chews up the naive innocents and spits them out. There's absolutely no doubt that a cult will form around this and I'm not ruling out another look at it down the line, but this seems like it's all smoke and mirrors, with Refn making a lot of noise but having very little to say.

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