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Haunted Sideshow

Dustin Putman

The Neon Demon  (2016)
3½ Stars
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn.
Cast: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Desmond Harrington, Alessandro Nivola, Keanu Reeves, Christina Hendricks, Jamie Clayton, Charles Baker.
2016 – 117 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for disturbing violent content, bloody images, nudity, a scene of strong sexuality, and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for, June 22, 2016.
"A diamond in a sea of glass" is how a brutally honest fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola) describes his latest muse, the naturally striking Jesse (Elle Fanning). An aspiring 16-year-old model new to the City of Angels, she has run away from her small-town life with eyes toward stardom. "I can't sing, I can't dance, I can't write," she confides in new friend Dean (Karl Glusman), "but I'm pretty—and I can make a lot of money off of pretty." Writer-director-auteur Nicolas Winding Refn (2011's "Drive" and 2013's "Only God Forgives") has never been one to repeat himself or take easy shortcuts, and so it is only fitting he would mount his first foray into the horror genre, "The Neon Demon," strictly and fiercely on his own terms. There are markers of comparison along the way—Natasha Braier's (2014's "The Rover") intoxicating cinematography and saturated color scheme remind of Terrence Malick by way of Dario Argento's 1977 masterpiece "Suspiria," while the portrayal of Hollywood's soul-devouring politics is not unlike 2014's "Starry Eyes"—but these are superficial at best once the trailblazing Refn has his way with the material.

Jesse lives in a low-rent Pasadena motel as she eagerly, methodically awaits her big break. She is already well on her way when she signs with a reputable talent agency; spotting great potential, new boss Jan (Christina Hendricks) instructs her to forge their parental consent form and tell everyone she's 19. New clients, like that aforementioned fashion designer and intense photographer Jack (Desmond Harrington), are mesmerized by her natural ethereal beauty, while make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone) describes her as having true star quality—or, as she puts it, that unexplainable "thing." The competition, however, isn't nearly as thrilled, with fresh-out-of-the-body-shop Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee) experiencing a rude awakening as they virtually vanish in front of casting directors the second Jesse steps into the spotlight. Jesse is young, innocent and very, very green. She also is impressionable, buying into—and coming to expect—every last inflating compliment she receives. In a town where being a top model is a cutthroat business with an expiration date (plenty of hungry young women are already aging out of their profession by the age of 21), Jesse does not quite grasp the fatalistically vulnerable position in which she is putting herself.

"The Neon Demon" doesn't always—or almost ever—go where one expects, but it plays into everything there is to love about cinema. It offers up sights and sounds never seen or heard before, and does it without feeling the need to spoon-feed its audience. It is a film to envelop oneself in its unusual world, then ponder its loaded subject matter afterwards. It won't be to everyone's taste, this is for sure. For those who aren't able to give themselves over to something new, different and challenging, what a shame for them. For the adventurous, "The Neon Demon" is a uniquely vivid, harrowingly wrought vision, a cautionary fable of La La Land corruption and egotism, of lust and envy taken to aberrant extremes. Jesse's initial feelings of alienation in a hulking city to which she hasn't yet grown accustomed are satiated by the attention she receives from others by doing little more than existing. The closer she edges toward her goals, the nearer she comes to being swallowed by an incommunicable beast far worse than the mountain lion which sneaks in through the opened sliding door of her motel room. "I'm not as helpless as I look," she says, her words spoken by someone harboring either a dark secret or a lot of hot air. The tragedy is that she doesn't yet sense the gravity of her actions or the price that eventually, inevitably, must be paid.

Elle Fanning (2014's "Maleficent") holds hypnotic sway over her lead role as Jesse, an enigmatic figure all the more fascinating because one can never quite be sure who she is and if her intentions run deeper than that of an attractive girl looking to exploit her appearance. She speaks of a childhood where she would gaze up at the nighttime sky and dream of someplace bigger, but when she cryptically reveals her parents aren't around anymore, this turn of phrase can be deciphered approximately ten different ways. What can be confidently deemed is how in over her head she is among the feeding ground of her ruthless surroundings. There is the inclination to wish more was learned about Jesse, to delve more deeply into her mind, yet Fanning is such an expressive actor she, in a lot of ways, provides all that is necessary in conveying her bewitching, doe-eyed allure. Do we really need to know anything more than what Refn astutely provides? In a job where all anyone cares about is exterior aesthetics, Jesse is trapped by this limited foundation and okay with that. She's already selling herself short.

Uninhibited supporting turns from Jena Malone (2014's "Inherent Vice"), as the alternately sultry, protective Ruby, and Bella Heathcote (2015's "The Rewrite") and Abbey Lee (2016's "Gods of Egypt"), as the distastefully covetous Gigi and Sarah, are of the unforgettable, go-for-broke variety, fearlessly wading into grim, taboo-crashing areas. For his sympathetic part, Karl Glusman (2015's "Stonewall") brings a quiet, respectful affection to Jesse's photographer pal Dean—a rare beacon of goodness in a town where there's no room for his kind. The screenplay by Refn and co-writers Mary Laws and Polly Stenham isn't without a few dead ends—Christina Hendricks (2011's "I Don't Know How She Does It") is out of the picture as quickly as she enters it as a straight-talking agent, while Keanu Reeves (2008's "The Day the Earth Stood Still") has no detectable purpose as motel owner Hank outside of participating in an uncomfortable dream sequence—but these undernourished threads are insignificant in the shadow of Refn's ravishing, gloriously crazed indulgences.

Set in a glittering environment where women are objectified by men, flashing cameras and each other, "The Neon Demon" paints a starkly wondrous, boldly forbidding canvas. Nicolas Winding Refn sets the off-center mood right away as Jesse poses for an amateur photo shoot involving a sliced throat and stage blood, then little by little peels the layers to reach the genuine, unthinkable horrors underneath. Tech credits are stunners, from the exquisite costumes to the unsparing production design. Cliff Martinez's (2013's "Spring Breakers") cosmically sublime score of synthesizers and sonic crystals accompanies Natasha Braier's darkly lush, lavish imagery, the magic-hour-and-beyond lensing a seeming emulation of a rainbow leading straight to Hell. "The Neon Demon" is a film emblazoned by its own sleek, eerie, sensuous style, but there is more—much more—offered beyond its captivating visuals and soundtrack. Refn grabs Jesse by the hand and pulls her into a thematically contemplative, metaphorically rich Santa Ana windstorm to which the only escape is to run screaming past the Hollywood Hills. The desire to be the center of attention in any room she enters is, alas, everything to her—a sacrifice, whether she is prepared to accept it or not, without a safe exit.
© 2016 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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