Even though I’ve despised every Nicolas Winding Refn film I’ve seen up until this point, there was a part of me that wanted to find The Neon Demon to be the glossy camp classic some critics have hailed it to be (Cahiers du Cinéma even named it the third best film of 2016). But what I found instead was a perfumed cesspool that uses the grotesque to mask a trivial, bloated satire about the shallowness of (gasp) the fashion industry. And for what it’s worth, an empty satire about Hollywood excess would have been excusable if The Neon Demon weren’t such a joyless, eye-rolling descent into humorless exploitation.
Curiously, The Neon Demon might be the first of Refn’s films in which women occupy the screen together for any length of time (beyond nameless, naked hookers in his Pusher trilogy), which makes it rather easy to throw the claim of misogyny in his direction. “Similar claims” were made against Showgirls, a film The Neon Demon is frequently (and unfairly) compared to, but with Paul Verhoeven’s initially misunderstood masterpiece, critics somehow missed the fact that Showgirls is indeed a satire (and a glorious one, at that). I’m hard pressed to call The Neon Demon misogynistic outright, despite outright stupid conversations about women and lipstick (“are you food or are you sex, Elle Fanning?”), since misogyny falls under the umbrella of general misanthropy, which is the life source that runs through The Neon Demon‘s veins.
For a film as superficial as The Neon Demon (“but Joe, its observations are shallow because it’s mimicking the shallow world it depicts!”), it feels appropriate to address the film on its surface level. Visually speaking, it’s about as striking as a mid-grade Lady Gaga music video, and this was probably the main area where, had Refn succeeded, it might have been easy to forgive the rest of the film’s shortcomings. In my wishful thinking, I imagined Alejandro Jodorowsky remaking Tron in a high-fashion, on-the-verge-of-apocalypse Los Angeles as the visual blueprint for The Neon Demon, but I set myself up for failure there.
Performances ultimately should have been inconsequential for a film like this, but The Neon Demon somehow turns itself into an arena for the cast to aggressively out-bad-act one another. As Jesse, the naive protagonist for whom the world of The Neon Demon inexplicably turns, Elle Fanning has little to do beyond sleepwalk through the film, so it’s really a toss-up between Jena Malone gnawing as hard as she can on her idea of tongue-in-cheek as a lesbian necrophile and a reliably hammy Keanu Reeves, as the sleazy manager of the motel where Jesse resides, for the honor of delivering the film’s most embarrassing performance. Alessandro Nivola, who plays the fashion designer with the desire to turn Jesse into his muse, wisely left his name out of the credits altogether.
While the performances themselves shouldn’t have mattered, the casting probably should have. One element of The Neon Demon that’s hard to bring up (for fear of being labeled with the m-word myself) is the notion that, physically-speaking, Fanning wouldn’t cut it as a model in the actual fashion industry. She’s possibly believable as the prettiest girl in whatever midwestern small town she’s supposed to be from, but she’s an otherwise milquetoast white girl with no striking features whatsoever. As one of the competing models fixated on Jesse, Abbey Lee (Mad Max: Fury Road) is the only person in the film who actually looks like she exists in this universe, and she’s also the only cast member to rise above the material to provide a compelling performance. So by casting Fanning, is this some subtle, unique way Refn is critiquing the industry, or is he just hopelessly clueless and ignorant about it? Or does he just not care?
A limp satire that aims for the lowest hanging fruit; a misanthropic fashion exposé adorned with bad clothes and cheap style; an exploitation film that’s too boring to actually offend or entertain; a queasy, misguided dose of camp from a humorless director; a poorly manufactured provocation without a single thrill… these make up the versatile look book of the year’s biggest cinematic sham.
With: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Abbey Lee, Bella Heathcote, Alessandro Nivola, Karl Glusman, Keanu Reeves, Desmond Harrington, Christina Hendricks