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The Neon Demon (Review)

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(Trigger warning: this piece contains spoilers. BIG spoilers. In fact, I even give away the ending, just cos I feel like it. Don’t come whining to us if you read something you don’t want to before watching it)

Now. I am going to tell you something shocking, and some of you won’t like me for it. I may shatter some lifelong-held illusions, may messily abort a few nascent technicolour dreams, may sour a few coulda-been cinematic careers when I tell you what I am going to. I’m truly sorry if this happens. As the plucky wee moppet orphan Annie sagely put it, it’s a hard knock life. So brace yourself, okay? Okay. Here it goes:

Hollywood is not a very nice place.

Bet you didn’t know that. But Nicolas Winding Refn (always vaguely mean to find out if the ‘Winding’ part is real), the infamous enfant terrible of modern edgerider cinema, knows this for a fact. And he even made an urgent, visionary tract to tell us about this little-known Follyrood straitjacket-wearing trait called The Neon Demon. In it, he urgently essays to us the too-true new news that the Dream-Scream Factory, and the American entertainment industry behemoth in general, can chew up and shit out its young female moths-to-fame-flame; just ask the likes of Celebritney Spears or Lindsay Blowhan, the usual self-abused suspect devices.

So yeah. Hollywood is cunty towards home-attention-starved wannabe-starlets, and effing Refn wants you to know this. His film serves as a sort of selfless, community-minded PSA where he sets out to warn the parents of naïf waifs and throbbing-for-a-shot headspingenues that Hollywood Is Bad. This is what is known in Hollywood as a high concept idea, something so piss-easy to understand that it will play in Peoria, as they put it in the parochial Hollywood colloquial. Least I think it’s called a high concept. Not entirely sure, and I don’t care. Do you? Nope, didn’t think so. Anyway. Moving right along, just like Kermit and Fozzy sang in the car on their own way to Hollywood in the original and best Muppet Movie from 1979 (accept no precocious cloth-animal substitutes)…

(By the way. I am probably the only person on earth who will mention The Muppet Movie in relation to this film. This is as it should be. It’s what you don’t pay me for).

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So yeah 2: the sequel. Eager young starryeyed jailbaitee Jesse (Elle Fanning. Looking to me like a young Goldie Hawn) high tails it from some American backwater (didn’t take a note; didn’t care; insert your own generic boring backwater if it helps) to go to Hollywood to make money from being blonde and bland and beautiful. She has no discernible talent apart from being attractive, but reckons she can “make money from pretty.” She’s right. She already has modern Hollywood figured out, at a mere 16 years old (the same age the actress was making the film). She’s so innocent and aw-shucks and doe-eyed and potentially doomed that it literally physically hurts to look at her, like staring into a frustrated virginal sun for too long with the naked eye (were you so inclined). She’s so diaphonous and symbolic that I could see right through her at times, which had me admiring the sparse, sterile backdrops she was posed against all the more. Still, the haunting, mocking voice of Noel Coward presciently singing in 1935 about how Mrs. Worthington shouldn’t put her daughter on the stage, in a song that could actually be the Neon Demon theme, comes to mind more than once.

So of course, you know what happens, right? Of course you do. Immediately she’s the talk and stalk of the tinsell-and-buy town, effortlessly beating other snip-and-tuck-fucked types for roles they covet and love to hate her for. It’s just like high school all over again for people who are 54% silicon and 46% bullshit. We get endless shots of people looking into mirrors, or shots involving mirrors, to unsubtly underscore the narcissism of the whole tired tinselfrown miss sad venture. Predatory agent Ruby (don’t take your young love to tinseltown!), ably essayed (I love putting in cliched phrases like that into work, cos it takes up space) by sweet Jena Malone, is all over the new headswimmy gollygoshgee whatatown Alice in Wonderbland, and immediately takes her under her wing, leading to such sterling dialogue wreckschanges as this one:

“Hey, you wanna go somewhere?”

“Where?”
“A party.”

“What kind of party?”

“The fun kind.”

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And off to a party they go. To have fun. Of a kind. This is the kind of dialogue that people spend years trying to master, but Refn and his two cowriters, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, just effortlessly constantly seed the film with these throwaway swine-before-pearls bonbon mots. It makes you dizzy just thinking about the sort of half-chewed soundbite dryalogue in this film, it really does. I would guess they would say that the sparse speech spoken by the one-dimensional ‘characters’ mirrors the emptiness and vapid banality of the giddy vertiginous party-hearty Hollywood being presented here, but I personally just think it’s a bad writing.

Two botoxic schlock culture vulture type femme fatale types fade in and out of the blackground of the film, the Ugly Sisters to Jesse’s Cinderella. Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee) grow increasingly frustrated with the new, younger career-opportunity interloper in their midst, increasingly wanting to smash the perfect-fit glass slipper off her flawless unlined forehead. Their roles basically require them to pout, pose preciously, and puke up pretentious and stupid dialogue. They ask Jesse if she is “sex or food” during a conversation about how makeup is either marketed to women as ‘food’ or ‘sex.’ More genius-genus wordspurts on display:

“Are you food…or are you sex?”

“She’s dessert. Because she’s so sweet.”

Ah, but these words are not just bad syllabic-and-syntactic hackwork from typists (as opposed to writers), no siree! As we shall see, they…well…anyway…don’t want to ruin the surprise right now…I want to ruin it later. So sue me.

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Anyway. A poncey artiste type called Jack (Desmond Harrington) puts in an appearance. He’s looking for a hot young thing for his next…film? Photos? I watched this film last night and already I can’t remember, it made so little impression on me, like a half-developed photographic negative exposed to destructive revealing daylight and the image just disappearing from the frame. Jack looks like Clive Barker, so it’s little surprise that he seems more interested in playing with his handkerchief than looking at the women being paraded before him. Until the fresh flesh flash of the parade hits him square between the disinterested eyes, that is, and he falls under the estrogenerated spell of sweet magical Disney princess Jesse. She is a mythical character, a fairytale punchline, enchanting everybody she comes into contact with, male and female, and at no point is she played like a real, living, breathing, menstruating, mentally and emotionally awkward ‘real’ teen. This makes it pretty much impossible to root for her as a character, because, well, who cares, really? She’s as remote and boring and inaccessible as the rest of the glitteratbag types surrounding her ever-more-sharklike, and the fact you can’t relate to, or root for, any of the characters makes the film a very loooooong exercise in stopped-caring-a-long-time-ago-what-happens boredumb.

And a word on the film’s pacing. Basically, not to put too fine a point on it, it’s slow…as…fuck. From some random pisstakey Facebook posts I made as I watched it: “64 minutes in and I couldn’t be any more bored.” “68 minutes and feeling like it’s been on for hours.” “83 minutes and I am losing…the will…to…stay awake…” You get the idea. The pacing here is as glacial as the performances and backdrops on display throughout the walking (sorry, running) time. I should have turned it off halfway through, as I did with Refn’s previous monosyllabic sweaty spornosexual fight clubbing feature, Only God Forgives, but decided for no clear reason to sit it out to the end because surely the film has to be ‘notorious’ for something, right? Practically nothing at all happens for the first 90-odd minutes, so by the time it hits the last quarter of the film you really don’t give much of a stunbrain fuck what’s going to happen with the ostensibly tough stuff and nonsense that gained the film its unwarranted ‘taboo-transgressive-terrifying’ warning-cum-hither label in the deluded, stupid world film media.

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Anyway. Back at the ranch, things have been heating up for wee Jesse. The predatory Lolita-mentioning manager of the shitbox roach motel she is staying in (a hilariously bad-acting minor role for Keanu Reeves, who had me shouting “Whoah! Dude!” every time he came onscreen, which is probably not the reaction he was looking for), Hank, steals into her room in the dead of nightmare and shoves a big phallic knife into her mouth in a could-be screamdream sequence. And while we’re on that subject, there is a scene straight out of A Nightmare on Elm Street, where the wall above Jesse’s bed bulges and boils out to become a threatening shape above her sleeping form. We are given very occasional clues here and there that the film is not meant to be taken literally as some sort of ‘real’ presentation, like with the random appearance of a mountain lion in Jesse’s bedroom (lot of bedroom violation imagery in this film, teen virgin first-cock angst or something), but nowhere near enough to knock us out of the film or truly show us whether it’s finally meant to be fish or fowl.

Hearing a 13-year-old runaway mentioned earlier in the film being murdered in the next hotel room to hers (the only scene that actually worked for me), Jesse calls up Ruby and goes over to her place, without bothering to call the cops to save the poor girl being destroyed next door. Ruby tries to rape her. We find out that Ruby is a necrophile (I had guessed it fairly early on, but that’s just the way my mind works), in a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in Nekromantik 2, but obviously she swings both ways, living and dead, and likes a bit of warm flesh upon occasion for erotic variety too. Jesse fights her off, sleeps, and then when she wakes up the next day the material happens that the film has gained its ‘notoriety’ for. Here’s where I ruin the ending, so fuck off if you don’t want to know, you have been trigger-warned. She gets up, gets attacked and beaten around by Gigi and Sarah, then is thrown into an empty pool where she dies horribly and painfully, gazing up at the ever-dimmer fuck-you twinkling stars. And then the ladies eat her. Yay! Hollywood literally cannibalises its young! The cliched symbolic rendered literal! Heady stuff indeed!

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You don’t see Jesse being dismembered and eaten. What you do see is the aftermath of it at the pool and the blood being washed away. Then Gigi and Sarah are at a fashion shoot, being all pouty and cosmopolitan and icy-stylish and such, when all of a sudden Sarah takes not well. She rushes into a bedroom at the house they’re shooting at, and pukes up a human eyeball, making a helluva mess on an expensive carpet. The fact you’re thinking about the carpet, and not what just happens, may tell you something about your level of (dis)engagement with the film by this point. And by the way, I’m telling you this stuff on purpose, so you don’t have to waste your time watching it. Gigi comes in, Sarah moans about how she wants “her out of me,” and eviscerates herself with a pair of scissors. Sarah picks up the eye and eats it. Waste not, want not. And the slick lame yawn and fart of nothing film ends.

Which will bring us back to doh! If you want a vulture’s coughed-up-eye view of the film, I would say it comes off like a bad 70s Eurotrash-horror film (think Jean Rollin or Jess Franco) mixed with some early 80s sci-fi erotica effort like Café Flesh, like a Vogue fashion shoot done by somebody with a Dario Argento lighting fetish after a concussive head trauma. A few of the scenes, including the eyeball-gulping, self-evisceration and female-corpse-riding, genuinely seemed to come straight out of the two Nekromantik films. I read interviews about the film here and there about how Refn is apparently regarded as some sort of master stylist-cum-cinematic-poet-provocateur. I can see why he’d be regarded as a stylist, cos of the carefully-composed-yet-sterile, anti-beautyfool, character-dwarfing symmetrical shots, but in the end it’s all for nothing really. I would say the film is a triumph of style over substance, but it has no style, and no substance, so it’s sort of a moot point, really, kind of like Sunset Boulevard with fetish fanny and necrophilia. And scenes with glowing neon triangles, too. Mustn’t forget those. Best part of the film.

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I do recall the Danish Refn saying somewhere that he wants to be regarded as the Sex Pistols of filmmaking. Well, there’s something Johnny Rotten in Denmark. If Nicolas really is the cinematic Sex Pistols, he’s like the shit Pistols, the second version with Glen Matlock gone, on tour in America, the shitshow circus in fool swing, Sid wasted on smack and a defeated, stage-kneeling Johnny sneering and bitterly laughing and asking the audience (and himself): “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” This is a prime example of the sort of film that gets a buzz starting at film festervilles, where bored, wanky middle class big-gob cinema snobs, who don’t even know what the fucking word ‘transgressive’ means, see it and start to manufacture the general critical con-in-concensus on what the industry will think of the film, and how it will be reported on by people who starfuckly thrive on their fixes of access to the stars. Well, it’s not enough, and I never gave a fuck what critics think or thought about anything anyway. Always made up my own mind. I can see that Refn is a competent enough technician. But, as in the case of a talentless technofreak like Gaspar Noe, it’s quite simply not enough. I don’t know the Dane’s career much, except to say that, judging by this film, and half of Only God Forgives, I would never want to see another film of his again in my life. But that’s just me. Opinions are subjective, etc. If you disagree, you have the right to be wrong, fine.

Talk amongst yourselves.

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Hammer Horror: The Warner Bros Years

About Graham Rae

Graham Rae has been writing about weird and wonderfueled cinematic oddities for nearly 30 years. He started off writing for the legendary Deep Red, and since then has been bounced around like a human pinball around such venues as Film Threat, American Cinematographer, Cinefantastique, and Realitystudio.org.. A selection of his genre writings are available at www.facebook.com/raewrites, and he runs a Mad Foxes page on Facebook too. You have been warned.

3 comments

  1. From the stills I have seen, I thought it was obviously about cannibalism! I had no intention of watching this, and I have not seen any of his other films. You have saved me some wasted hours. Thank you!
    Spring is a much better film covering the same subject.

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