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Neon Demon Review: A Violent, Distressing, Visceral Thriller

By Ryan Scott — June 22nd, 2016

Most people know Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn from his 2011 breakout hit Drive, which starred Ryan Gosling and was easily one of the best movies of that year. Since then, his offerings have been a little less solid, mostly due to the fact that they are not designed to be consumed by a mass audience. The Neon Demon certainly fits that bill and good or bad, will wind up being a movie that you will never be able to forget and will likely wind up as one of the most talked about movies of the year.

The Neon Demon tells the story of a young woman named Jesse (Elle Fanning), who has just moved to Los Angeles with hopes of becoming a famous model. She becomes friends with a makeup artist named Ruby (Jena Malone) who introduces her to some of the other girls in the LA modeling scene and they instantly become jealous of Jesse, because she is young and in their eyes, flawless. As Jesse begins to rise through the ranks in the modeling game very quickly, Sarah (Abby Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote) become increasingly jealous and violent towards her. This leads to a lot of terrible things, but saying anymore than that would spoil too much for anyone who wants to see the movie.

The title of the movie is actually very appropriate, as the movie is very bright, gorgeous and impossible not to look at (most of the time), much like neon. It is also very disturbing, violent, distressing and complicated, much like a demon in any sense of the word. Outside of that, the movie is a very difficult thing to classify or to even formulate words about that can truly justify what it actually is, which is ultimately a mixed bag and likely, very divisive. Much like the rest of Refn's movies, it pulls no punches and isn't shy about portraying exactly what it wants to portray, no matter how ugly, unsightly, or unpleasant it may be at times. The Neon Demon has been described as a psychological horror movie, but I'm not entirely sure that paints an accurate picture of what one can expect to see. I, however, can't offer a better explanation. It's is a perplexing movie.

Regardless of what the end result of The Neon Demon's narrative is, there are a ton of great things in it. For one, the cast is purely excellent, which seems to a be a common thread with Refn. Fanning is unrelentingly great for her part. Fanning has always been good, but this movie feels like a stepping stone for her as an actress and one that leads you to believe there are big, wonderful, bright things ahead for her in the future. She is supported by Malone, Lee and Heathcote who are her characters counterpoints and challenge her confidence and perspective. Keanu Reeves and Christina Hendricks also lend their very welcomed talents for a very brief time. They are all fantastic but Malone specifically does some things that are pretty brave that not every actress would be willing to do on screen. Despite how anyone might feel about those things, she deserves some credit for her commitment.

The Neon Demon, much like Only God Forgives and Drive, also looks absolutely incredible. Again, different people are going to feel very differently about this movie. Some people will like it, others will be confused by it and some will downright hate it. Several people walked out of the screening I attended and it was somewhat famously booed by some audience members when it premiered at Cannes. That is an understandable sentiment depending on your perspective, but nobody can deny that the visual storytelling is breathtaking and nobody quite has Nicolas Winding Refn Refn's style that is working today. It is so distinct and eye catching that much of the time, it almost doesn't matter what is happening on screen. It is like being at a kind of messed up yet beautiful carnival on your drug of choice. That is only bolstered by the outstanding soundtrack for the movie, which is something Refn is also consistently nailing. It is zen. Elements of the narrative can and very well might override that for viewers, though.

Refn has mostly made movies about very violent men and even if the movie really goes off the rails and gets very, very weird toward the end, it is at least interesting to see his take on a movie from a woman's perspective. The Neon Demon is attempting to shed a light on the human obsession with beauty and the seedy world that can surround that. Largely, the movie accomplishes that goal, at least the first two acts. The foreseeable problem for some viewers is that, even though most of the movie is very artistic and not at all a mainstream thing, it is very watchable, relatable, beautiful and can be reasoned with. Reason and some might argue good taste are very much abandoned in the third act of the movie, and that makes it tough to reconcile. It should also be noted that The Neon Demon features what is unquestionably one of the most disturbing scenes ever put on screen. That is not to be taken as a challenge, more as a warning.

Amazon Studios is helping to distribute The Neon Demon, which means that after the theatrical release it will be made available to stream on Amazon Instant. That may be the way to go. That is not to say that there aren't people who will really enjoy this movie, because there definitely are, but it feels very much like those people will be somewhat few and somewhat far between. A definite minority. Refn is becoming a director that you will love even when you hate. He is so undeniably talented that even when he misses, you know you will go back because that next great movie is in there somewhere. For most of us, The Neon Demon probably isn't that movie. There is something admirable about it though, and I am at the very least extremely interested to see what Refn does next. The Neon Demon is in theaters this Friday.

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