These are the questions that ran through my mind after watching Nicolas Winding Refn's latest cinematic creation, The Neon Demon. A haunting look at the Los Angeles modeling scene, Refn's film is almost impossible to look away from. It sucks you into its world with the music, the performances, the set designs. Everything about The Neon Demon is immaculately created and beautiful to behold. It's also a sickeningly violent film, filled with perversely graphic sex scenes, disturbing murders, and one of the most disgustingly insane moments I've ever seen on the big screen. It's clear that Refn is going for some sort of cross between shock value and Lynchian tale of sex and betrayal in Los Angeles. But does the director push it too far? Has he created a film so off-putting and shockingly distasteful that it clouds any message that he's trying to convey?
Jesse is welcomed to town by Ruby (Jena Malone), a makeup artist who also doubles as a mortician. Ruby is familiar with the fashion scene, and she introduces Jesse to Gigi and Sarah (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee), two slightly intimidating models. When she gets to LA, Jesse stays at a seedy motel under the supervision of Hank (Keanu Reeves), an oddball manager. She gets occasional visits from a boyfriend (Karl Glusman), and despite her circumstances, the promise of stardom keeps her going. But after a while, things get......weird. First, there's the mountain lion in her bedroom. Then a strange encounter with Sarah in a bathroom after a botched audition. The motel gets creepier, the modeling scene more delirious, and her friends start to turn on her. After a while, Jesse finds herself being consumed by the industry, as three jealous has-beens are left to envy her success.
The Neon Demon isn't a plot-centric film. It's barely even able to focus on characters. No, Refn's horror thriller is a hallucinatory and chilling mix of sound and images, punctuated by the sparkling cinematography of Natasha Braier and Cliff Martinez's unsettling score. The film is evocative and eerie, drenched in beauty and buckets of blood. Refn has always specialized in neon-infused, color-soaked gorefests, and with his foray into the L.A. modeling scene, the director has possibly created the ultimate example of style over substance. To say that this film is gorgeous would be a severe understatement. It practically revels in its abundant artistry, and its polished style is enough to carry the film through its slowest moments.
Refn is basking in the exquisite style of his film, but in addition to that, he's using the modeling scene to explore some very interesting thematic points (albeit, ones that have been explored more thoroughly in better films). The most immediate comparison is David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, which is also a scary and delirious trip through the underbelly of LA. And indeed, Refn is touching on similar themes- beauty, jealousy, betrayal, a hunger for fame. All of these pop into The Neon Demon at one point or another, giving a slight sense of meaning to the occasionally meandering proceedings. These are all potent themes, and Refn makes good use of them throughout, giving the audience something to chew on in between the violence and nastiness on screen.
Refn's film isn't nearly the masterpiece that Mulholland Drive is, but I had a very similar reaction. After watching Lynch's near-perfect film, I was left unsettled for days. It's probably the strongest response of fear that I've ever had to a film. It remains one of my favorite movies and quite possibly the most interesting piece of cinema that I've ever seen. I like films that leave an impression, films that give you a gut reaction of fear, dread, and curiosity. I love it when a movie allows the viewer to come up with a theory of their own. The Neon Demon had a big impact on me, and unlike a good majority of this summer's shlock, I haven't been able to get it out of my mind (and believe me, I've tried). Everything about this film is so strong and sensual and horrifying that certain images remain ingrained inside my mind. Refn's vision had me entranced, and now, it has me haunted.
There's almost a science to the way that Refn accomplishes this difficult task. Everything in The Neon Demon feels exact and perfect, making the comparison to Stanley Kubrick apt. Each shot is thrilling, the story beats are shockingly ghastly, and the visual cues are hypnotizing and fear-inducing. He's created something that feels like lucid midnight movie fare, but with the look of a cinematic masterpiece. That's no easy feat. But there's something more. Refn, along with Martinez and Braier and costume designer Erin Benach, pushes further, reaching a tone that feels more alien than any other film I've seen in a long time. You feel like you're watching something that is literally not from this planet. It is out of this world in almost every way.
All of this brings us to the final act of the film, which is the primary reason as to why CNN has asked "Is this the most controversial film of 2016?" The finale of The Neon Demon has proven to be divisive, that's for sure. When I saw the film, there was only one other person in the theater, and they walked out as soon as the necrophilia scene began. And I have a feeling that will be the response by most audience members. There are certain lines that people generally have, and in this film, Refn crosses every single one of them. As a lover of cinema and the art form, my boundaries are a little more out-there. And even still, Refn pushed me to my absolute limit. The final scene, which is a sequence that I surely will never forget, sank into the pit of my stomach. As the filmmaker pushed further and further, I felt increasingly uncomfortable, like the walls were closing in on me. It was an insane experience.
And I guarantee you, if Refn read this review, he would delight in the fact that a 17 year old kid bought a ticket and had a primal, terrifying physical reaction to his absolute beast of a movie. Refn is out to provoke, to make you think, to push you beyond what you think you're capable of handling. For some audience members, the journey will prove to be too much. And considering how nasty, tense, and outright disturbing The Neon Demon is, I can't blame them at all. But if you're willing to take the journey, to push yourself into uncharted, appallingly gross territory, you will be provided with a true experience.
I'm still trying to figure out if this film is purely an experiment in shock value or a full-on masterpiece from a consistently fascinating director. Only multiple viewings will tell. But for now, one thing is absolutely certain to me- The Neon Demon is an unforgettable piece of cinema.
THE FINAL GRADE: B+ (8/10)