THE NEON DEMON is Los Angeles. That melancholy, sprawling monolith, itself a victim of mankind’s Frankensteinian obsession with chasing perfection and growth by sewing mismatched parts onto a beast. Just like the Frankenstein monster cannot help its impulses after the lightning strikes, Los Angeles cannot help the behavior of the entertainment industry it has become shorthand for. Nicolas Windin Refin’s stunning, impossibly beautiful THE NEON DEMON coolly glides through the pitch waters of L.A.’s modeling world, deftly forcing viewers into the lonely, often terrifying machinery.
For a city full of over four million people, L.A. has the unique ability to make you feel absolutely alone. All the time. Even when surrounded by people. Especially, perhaps particularly so when you are moving in entertainment industry circles. In film, Tinseltown is usually presented with the common “movies are made here!” face. Perhaps a bit mysterious, but generally understood studios, stars, flashbulbs and glitz. One of the films I think truly cuts to the heart of the actual experience is Dan Gilroy’s 2014 masterstroke NIGHTCRAWLER, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Gyllenhaal’s character Louis Bloom feeds off the California night, makes a living off shooting and selling grisly in-the-moment news footage to area stations. It is dense with empty streets, isolation and emptiness. No film that I can recall so perfectly captures the bleak experience of the town. Until THE NEON DEMON.
THE NEON DEMON is the tale of Jesse (Elle Fanning), fresh to Los Angeles and making her way into the world of modeling. We pick up with her on her first gig for an amateur lenssmith, then follow her quick escort into the industry. But not too far in. This is a snapshot of her experience, giving audiences a D through Z story of where she is in her career. It isn’t the story of her life before Los Angeles, or of her chasing love, or of her trying to fit into a world where she is the square peg. It is the simple story of a girl (I say girl because the character and Fanning are both 16) who is alone and trying to find her place doing the only thing she thinks she can. While she admits a lack of talent, she does have beauty. “I can make money off pretty,” she explains to her would-be suitor Dean (Karl Glusman). Enter jealous contemporaries who are shuffled to the back, or in some cases out, of the room when Jesse enters, snarling beasts and encroaching men, and Jesse is forced to confront fear and trust over and over again. Just like most everyone who heads to L.A. to get into entertainment.
Working in an industry that, paint it romantically as we want, is really all about beauty, is no simple thing. Actors and models are selling themselves every day, and “perfection” gets the nod. We have found ways to build “perfect” human beings, but the surgery, plastic parts, gravity defying breasts and ass injections will always look, well, fake. And the irony is that fake is really seen as a form of ugliness. As Dr. Frankenstein found, the stitches and disingenuous ugliness always show, and even a manufactured mate, a’la BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, recoils in horror when put in front of a similarly “perfected” being. The cutthroat worlds of acting and modeling work in much the same way, and while natural beauty is treasured (“a diamond in a sea of glass,” a fashion designer describes Jesse), it is also preyed upon.
This is where Refn is strongest in THE NEON DEMON. He has created a character in Jesse that isn’t completely helpless. No country bumpkin new to the big city, as this kind of story usually goes. She knows how to survive, and while she is naive to the inner workings of the business, she is cautious in her travels. Despite her awareness, Jesse seems fragile, exposed, and delicate. Like a child in a room full of adults. As mentioned before, Fanning was only 16 when the film shot, and she looks it. She has a natural vulnerability about her, with the kind of big, sparkling eyes that only the young can truly see the world through. In every situation she walks into, we are concerned about her well being. A photographer asks his assistants and crew to leave the room so he can shoot Jesse on a closed set, and the tension instantly skyrockets. The same when Jesse walks back to her lonely motel room and faces a number of predatory entities there, etc. She isn’t always frightened, but we are for her, and this is the nature of being in Los Angeles on your own. Of being in a business world so thick with fog that everyone is feeling their way around in the dark. A world where many devour whatever they grab before consideration.
This is the story of THE NEON DEMON. Of an industry that is the belly of a massive, uncontrollable beast and how so many willingly throw themselves into its maw. Of survival without allies. Of how wayward souls looking for a place to tether themselves can fudge their morals a bit in effort to find something solid in life. Of the prescribed marching orders of superficiality, and how the thing you want to be a part of can eat you.
Natasha Braier’s cinematography is nothing short of stunning. She and Refn seem perfectly paired, and their work here leaves audiences mesmerized, especially so in this pairing with Cliff Martinez’s great, hypnotic score. Beautiful moments linger, sometimes almost frozen, hanging with audiences until they blur the line between pretty and haunting. The frame is rich with color and splashes of light, but shadows lurk everywhere, and in those recesses our unsettling concern for Jesse lurks. She never feels safe, and this is largely due to Braier making us feel like something sinister is always just out of view.
I have seen this film heavily, almost universally criticized by unimaginative reviewers for a lack of depth to the characters, and they are at once completely right and completely wrong. They are right in pointing out that there is a lack of depth to the characters you meet in THE NEON DEMON. They are wrong to criticize that, because Jesse is a fully realized character in terms of this story, and moreso because the paper dolls that populate this film are exactly what you find in Hollywood. It is a business overrun with “useful” relationships, where the need to be seen trumps the need to connect, and where competitive oneupmanship runs in the veins. I have seen the film accused of being misogynistic, and that is accurate because the business is misogynistic. I have seen criticism of shots being too long and time spent in too many quiet moments, and that is accurate because you step into IN THE NEON DEMON as a witness to Jesse’s story, but also as something of a participant. It is as though you are in the trenches with her. In her moments of wonder and moments of terror. Life doesn’t move at a quick clip.
Entertainment doesn’t exist in column A or column B. It just exists. Each piece of art we approach has the right to exist on its own terms, and film is no different. I usually don’t read reviews because I am eternally frustrated by the lack of openness most critics approach the medium with. The only common element anyone needs to be on the lookout for when going to see a movie is that it is a motion picture. Beyond that, there is absolutely no reason why a filmmaker deciding to have characters that serve her/his story reflect the nature of what she/he is exploring should be tied to the stake. There isn’t a need for Jesse, in this case, to have a deep backstory, or for her to adopt any of the cliches we are accustomed to with the commonplace new-face-to-Los Angeles tale. Refn perfectly serves his characters, his story, and the audience here, and the curmudgeon critics can sit pouting, huffing about how the film doesn’t do what a film should.
That, dear critics, is exactly the point.
As such Refn has created his greatest work thus far in THE NEON DEMON. This bloody, lovely, terrifying opus is not to be missed.