Nobody can accuse Amazon Studios of not taking chances. I saw the trailer for THE NEON DEMON at the mainstream multiplex enough times for me to be genuinely surprised when the film finally arrived and I realized that it was NOT playing at a theatre near me. And considering its box-office fortunes where it DID open, I had pretty much given up on the prospect of seeing it on the big screen... but then the one theatre that would even CONSIDER playing THE NEON DEMON at that point (the Osio, of course), actually did so. And put it in its biggest auditorium. And I was one of exactly three people in the audience.
In all fairness, the trailer for THE NEON DEMON gave a pretty good indication of what to expect from the movie... at its heart it would be a cautionary 'price of fame,' 'this business will eat you alive' soap opera set in the vicious world of the cosmopolitan modeling industry; but writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn (not only does his name figure in the opening titles multiple times but he even brands his initials into said titles TWICE, so make absolutely no mistake as to who brought you this movie) was styling it as a surreal, insanely colorful, primo-Argento horror show. Correct on both counts.
We're told that sixteen-year-old ("Nineteen. Always say you're nineteen.") Jesse (Elle Fanning) is an orphan living in a seedy Pasadena motel while she tries to make it as a professional model. And the film goes straight to the point with its very first image--a photoshoot tableau of Jesse looking like elegantly posed giallo leftovers. (However, I did NOT immediately think of TENEBRAE or similar films when confronted with this--in truth, I was reminded of the "dead red" paintings of Antonio Sordi in the infamous BLOOD BATH/TRACK OF THE VAMPIRE/et al.) The shutterbug behind this spectacle is actually a nice guy by the name of Dean (Karl Glusman) who takes a genuine and caring interest in Jesse's well-being. "The Agency," however, wants nothing to do with Dean and everything to do with Jesse, who is instantly recognized as the 'perfect' female type, no cosmetic enhancements necessary (shades of LOOKER). All Jesse has to do is 'sign' a parental consent form, lie about her age and do whatever the men behind the brand names (including a truly intimidating photo-god played by Desmond Harrington) tell her to do. But everything should be fine... Jesse's new friend is a make-up artist named Ruby (Jena Malone); and she and HER friends (Bella Heathcoate of PRIDE + PREJUDICE + ZOMBIES and Abbey Lee of MAD MAX: FURY ROAD) make it quite clear that they'll have Jesse's back during her inevitable rise to the top of the mountain... mm-hmm...
The cast is fine, with Fanning and Malone particularly excellent, and Refn does, indeed, saturate the film with imagery to live up to the title. It's gorgeous when it's not out-and-out gory (which we'll get to soon enough) and it was worth my while to see it on the big screen, even if Refn tends to linger on some of his hallucinatory set pieces past the point of interest (how many times do you need to show us those blue triangles?) He also keeps us guessing with some moments that turn out to be very real (the 'intruder' in Jesse's motel room is a stunner). The film also scores not so much with the typical storyline itself but with the potent and relevant theme of women (in this business at the very least) being seen and marketed exclusively as product with an extremely limited shelf life. Not that the film places the blame entirely on predatory men, either... of course the one 'decent' fellow who speaks out against this attitude is completely shut out once the fame drug claims Jesse.
Therefore, while we originally care about what happens to Fanning's unprepared naif, she ceases to be a sympathetic character well before the movie winds down; and while the movie doesn't completely derail itself, it starts to lose focus (not to mention its own surreal nature) by taking time out to show what's going on with certain supporting characters when Jesse isn't around to see or hear any of it. Now, in the case of Dean trying to deal with Jesse's sleazy motel manager Hank (Keanu Reeves, also creepily terrific), it's important for the viewer to know exactly what kind of guy Hank is--the better for him to fear for Jesse's safety, perhaps... only later does it occur to him that Jesse saved her own skin and did nothing whatsoever about the hideous act apparently taking place next door. On the other hand, when Ruby and her companions talk privately among themselves, it's scarcely necessary--we already know perfectly well what they really think of Jesse. Refn, however, found it important to establish where Ruby worked when NOT in a modeling studio in order to set up a 'piece de resistance' sure to clean house (it reduced my audience to two members, anyway) when Rudy shares her frustrations with someone a bit less spirited than Jesse.
Well... scenes like THAT not only shatter any uncertainties (an apparent act of vampirism at a much earlier point still might have been metaphorical) but make you feel like you've been following the wrong character throughout the entire film. THE NEON DEMON ultimately reaches a clear and identifiable end point at which the film has said everything it has to say... but then it proceeds to hang around for at least another ten minutes just so it can regurgitate what we already know... oh, no. Did I just say that? No... really... I didn't mean... look... just forget you read that, okay?
If you were determined to see this on the big screen on the basis of the trailer, you should do so while you still have the chance. But take it with a HUGE warning label.
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