The Neon Demon
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Text: Elinor Tessin
You might recognize this director’s name from “Drive” (2011), his Hollywood debut dealing with psychotic LA stunt driver Ryan Gosling. “The Neon Demon” is more of the same; if you enjoyed listening to Cliff Martinez’ hypnotic soundtrack, and watching horrifying people doing horrifying things in front of neon-colored California scenery, you will probably like this one too.
Jesse (Elle Fanning), barely sixteen, is all alone in the world, and openly admits that she doesn’t have any skills or talents except for her beauty, if you can call that a talent; she just moved from her small hometown to LA trying to make some money as a model. She quickly finds herself surrounded by a swarm of men and women, some admiring her beauty, some trying to profit from it. With her limited life experience, she has a hard time discerning who means well and who doesn’t. Make-up artist Ruby (Jenna Malone) is apparently trying to help; motel owner Hank (Keanu Reeves, weirdly!) is definitely not. Also vying for her attention are young and naïve amateur photographer Dean, various star photographers and Ruby’s abrasive model friends.
According to Refn, he decided to make “The Neon Demon” women-centric because his previous movies mostly dealt with violent men. In my opinion, he could have used (or maybe actually listened to) some more female insight and inspiration; another movie where any given woman’s motivation is the quest for beauty, eternal youth and male attention is not exactly ground-breaking. I’ve already heard criticism about the film’s portrayal of LGBT characters, which I think is also very justified. The problem isn’t so much in having a psychopathic LGBT character, it’s in not any other LGBT characters as counterweight; I won’t say too much about this because it’s a major spoiler for the movie, but especially for this specific part of the LGBT community this specific stereotype is really outdated and yes, pretty offensive. Since Refn’s universe of neon horror is (as most of Hollywood) mainly populated by white, straight people, he could probably work on that.
In conclusion, a never boring, often weird and a little gross movie. Especially great and fun to watch was Abbey Lee as a very scary model, probably drawing from her own life experience. Various other great actors whose faces you might recognize star in small, weird roles. This is not the big step forward from “Drive” that I would have hoped for, but still worth watching if you don’t mind some gore.