Neon Demon
Other // R // $34.99 // September 27, 2016
Review by Ian Jane | posted September 27, 2016
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
E - M A I L
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R E V I E W S
Graphical Version

The Movie:

Directed in 2016 by Nicolas Winding Refn who co-wrote the script with Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, The Neon Demon begins with a striking scene in which a beautiful young woman named Jesse (Elle Fanning) is involved with a photo shoot put together by aspiring photographer Dean (Karl Glusman). She lies back on an ornate couch, dressed to the nines and covered in glitter and fake blood. When the shoot is over Jesse heads into the dressing room to clean up where she meets a makeup artist named Ruby (Jena Malone). When Ruby finds out that Jesse, who is an orphan, is in Los Angeles alone she invites her out to a party and introduces her to two other models, Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote). These two more experienced woman grill Jesse about her sex life and see to instantly have a strange attraction to her (as does pretty much everyone else in the movie). As the party gives way to a live Japanese bondage show, Jesse seems transfixed by the display, while the other women seem transfixed by Jesse.

The next day, Jesse has a meeting with Roberta Hoffmann (Christina Hendricks). She's also taken by her beauty and agrees to sign her to a contract, encouraging her to hide her actual age of sixteen and tell everyone she works with that she's nineteen. Jesse agrees. That night she goes out on a date with Dean. When she gets back to her hotel she finds that the lights won't work, that the balcony door is open and that something is in there. She gets the manager, Hank (Keanu Reeves), to look into it and they find a mountain lion inside the room. Hank blames her for leaving the door open and letting the beast in. The next day she is sent off to do a shoot with an eccentric photographer named Jack McCarther (Desmond Harrington). He doesn't normally do test shoots, but he makes an exception for Jesse. It seems everyone does. Jack asks everyone to leave and during the closed shoot has Jesse strip naked so that he can cover her in glitter and gold paint before taking her pictures. Jesse is nervous at first but that passes quickly. When the shoot is over and she runs into Ruby behind the studio, Ruby gives Jesse her cell phone number and instructs her to call if she needs anything.

Jesse's career takes off quickly. Soon enough she's getting the gigs that Sarah and Gigi wish they could get, high profile runway spots like closing the latest show put on by designer Robert Sarno (Alessandro Nivola). In this scene, which is borderline surrealism, Jesse quite literally falls in love with herself. As this continues, it's clear that the other women want what Jesse has, and that some of them will do anything to get it. Jesse, on the other hand, gets better and better with each project and as she does, her relationship with Dean changes as does her relationship with Rudy.

"I don't want to be like them. They want to be like me."

Like a lot of Refn's films, Only God Forgives being the best example, The Neon Demon will inspire some pretty strong reactions in viewers. There are those who will immediately dismiss the film as an exercise in style over substance. However, to blow it off as such is to miss the point. It is an exercise in style over substance, the visuals definitely do take precedence over plot and character development, but there's nothing wrong with that and this is hardly a vapid film. While it might be obvious, the film has some pretty damning things to say about the way that the fashion industry chews through its talent pool and about society's tendencies to value looks over pretty much anything else. While the film accentuates these tendencies to a completely over the top degree, but the constant need to find ‘fresh eat' to replace the ‘sour milk' really does play a big part and how and why the film ends the way it does. We won't spoil that ending here, but let it suffice to say that the film's credentials as a horror picture are most assuredly legitimate. In this film, everyone treats everyone else like an object and, when you think about that, and ramifications of living life that way, it hits harder than any gory set piece Refn could throw at you (though it doesn't stop him from doing it anyway). We are told early on in the film that everyone is either ‘food or sex,' after all. When you think about the last twenty minutes of the movie, Refn ties those themes and ideas together quite brilliantly. It's also interesting how Jesse's career mirrors Refn's own: he comes out of nowhere, gets some decent acclaim with his early films, hits massive success with Drive and is then savaged by a lot of critics for Only God Forgives, a brilliant film that many saw as completely self-indulgent.

The cast do some pretty interesting work here. Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote are great as Jesse's chief rivals. They each have an otherworldly beauty to them but as the movie makes so painfully clear, it is, in the world of The Neon Demon at least, an artificial beauty. Jesse has what everyone wants, a ‘deer in the headlights' look, a ‘girl next door' look and, as she learns fairly quickly… "Women would kill to look like this." Christina Hendricks' role is small but she's great as the agent, while Desmond Harrington is great, if emaciated looking (intentionally so it would appear), as the eccentric photographer. Alessandro Nivola is perfect as the Shakespeare quoting fashion designer and Keanu Reeves couldn't be sleazier if he tried as the shifty hotel manager. Karl Glusman, whose character would appear to be the only one in the film who sees Jesse as more than just a beautiful object (though a conversation with Nivola's character makes you question that, and rightly so), is also very strong here in the most effectively understated performance in the film.

The real heavy lifting, however, is done by Fanning and Jena Malone. Fanning, who was sixteen when shooting started, is fairly perfect here. She definitely does have the sort of naturally innocent beauty about her that the other characters flock to, but she's also very good in front of the camera. As her character evolves and shifts, her initial trepidation grows into full-fledged narcissism and it's here that she gives Jesse the assuredness to completely sell the part. Malone is also rock solid here. We know as soon as she meets Jesse that she, like everyone else in the film, wants a piece of her. That isn't hidden so much as it is waved in front of the audience's faces, but her work as Ruby is great. There's a scene later in the film where she realizes she isn't going to get what she wants and so, alone in a morgue, finds it through other means. It's a bold scene, one that sticks with you and that is, for all intents and purposes, a ridiculously effective way for Refn to combine the film's main themes: sex, death and beauty. Malone goes for it here and it's a scene you won't soon forget.

The movie features some pretty heavy doses of Dario Argento inspired visual flair (it's hard not to think of Suspiria as this plays out on your screen) with a healthy dose of Russ Meyer's Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls thrown in for good, thematic measure. There are moments where the glossy but intentionally cold cinematography conjures up memories of Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining as well (and in fact that film is referenced when a shade of lipstick being used is named ‘Red Rum'). Every frame is put together perfectly, the camera work is, in a word, flawless. The use of color is, in typical Refn fashion, quite high contrast and this results in some incredibly striking visuals. There's a lot of lens flare employed here as well as some startlingly odd slow motion photography. Cliff Martinez's score accentuates this in a big, big way. At times beautiful, other times unnerving its heavy on synths and pulsing sounds but it makes for the perfect accompaniment to the over the top style that Refn employs throughout the picture.

The Blu-ray:

Video:

The Neon Demon arrives on a 50GB Blu-ray disc in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition presentation framed at 2.40.1 widescreen and it look gorgeous. This is a very visually intense movie that uses a lot of bright, sometimes even garish, color schemes that tend to stand in stark contrast to a lot of the backgrounds that tend to rely on darker, greyish tones. The colors really pop here, it's quite a site to see and a very impressive experience, while the black levels are nice and solid from start to finish. Shadow detail is great and there are no problems with crush in the dark scenes. As this was shot digitally there's obviously no print damage to note nor is there any grain, so the picture is pretty much pristine. Detail is strong throughout and the amount of depth and texture evident in the movie is consistently top notch. The image quality here is pretty much reference quality, it looks great.

Sound:

The main audio option for each feature is an English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track and it too is of excellent quality. As you'd hope for in a movie as recent as this, the track is crystal clear and there are no problems at all with any hiss or distortion. Dialogue is properly balanced and always easy to follow and understand. The score sounds great, it's quite powerful in spots, while the sound effects (some of which are intentionally exaggerated for dramatic effect) also sound very strong. There's plenty of distinct channel separation evident throughout the mix. Optional subtitles are provided in English SDH and in Spanish and a Spanish language DTS 5.1 Surround Sound mix is also provided.

Extras:

The main extra on the disc is an audio commentary with director Nicolas Winding Refn who is joined by actress Elle Fanning. This is a pretty solid track with Refn talking about some of what inspired him to make this movie, a few ideas that were originally included that were then discarded as the production evolved, casting the film, some of the stand out visuals employed, the score and more. Fanning doesn't have as much to say as Refn does but she's able to offer some welcome insight into her character, what it was like working with Keanu Reeves, Christina Hendricks and some of the other cast members and other related topics.

There are also two short featurettes included on the disc, the first of which is the five minute Behind The Soundtrack Of The Neon Demon wherein Refn and composer Cliff Martinez talk about the use of music in the film and how and why the score is used in the feature the way it is. The second featurette is About The Neon Demon and it's a minute long piece that features some sound bites from the cast and crew and some red carpet premiere footage. Menus and chapter selection is also included.

Final Thoughts:

The Neon Demon is definitely an exercise in style over substance but it's not in the least bit devoid of the latter as some of its critics would have you believe. The performances are appropriately weird but entirely effective, the visuals are hypnotic, at times quite stunning. The story moves at a slow and deliberate pace but the film is never boring, it's one of those pictures that, the more you think about it and the more you put into it, the more you'll get out of it. The Blu-ray release looks and sounds excellent and if it could have used more extras, the commentary is quite interesting. Highly recommended.



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