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Saturday, June 25, 2016

Movie Review: #TheNeonDemon

The uncategorizable The Neon Demon is a daringly visceral experience.

Review by Matt Cummings

In a Summer filled with predictable sequels, a cacophony of explosions, and comedians reduced to farting to bring in the masses, it's entirely possible that some might assume the film year to be a complete loss. And then The Neon Demon arrives ready, able, and willing to blow your mind. The effect is something definitely un-Summer, uncategorizeable in every way, devoid of significant plot, and one of the best experiences of the year.

Bright-eyed and busy-tailed Jesse (a very good Elle Fanning) arrives in Los Angeles from Georgia, ready to make the big time. She has only one asset: her incredible natural looks, which quickly gain the attention of the bisexual make-up artist/moonlighting mortician Ruby (an even better Jena Malone). Jesse instantly becomes the flavor of the month as it were in the L.A. fashion industry, setting her against the status quo of using surgically-enhanced models. Enraged by her almost nubile appearance, two models (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee) plot her demise, while a seedy hotel pervert (a terrific Keanu Reeves) makes her home life (and many other unsuspecting girls) incredibly dangerous. As Jesse's success begins to corrupt her, she must decide who can be trusted, all while dark forces plot her violent demise.

The pure insanity of The Neon Demon is hard to defend, especially when Director Nicolas Winding Refn goes out of his way to heap on the trash, including menstrual cycles gone horribly awry, eyeballs as a delicatessen, and necrophilia added in for color. 'Creepy' barely covers what Refn has in store for us, even using glitter and body paint to unique degrees. And yet if you're willing to stick it out, you'll be treated to something remarkable, an erotic cinematic triumph that reminds me of Crimes of Passion or Trance. Demons is more of an experience than just a film, and the sad few who take a chance on it are sure to be divided on its effect. But that's Refn's point: he's here to slap us around with his auteur title while treating us to some of the most memorable (and disturbing) experiences in recent memory.

But the brazen attitude of The Neon Demon also contributes to its many problems. First, its plot is beyond paper thin, acting only as vehicle for Refn to show off ridiculously genius visual talent. Some of the symbolism behind it is also lacking, and the ending - which was apparently made up on the spot - makes little sense. Refn also globs on the message that beauty is both currency and weapon, but with so many gorgeously-shot scenes, I can forgive him for trying to knock us over the head with it. There's also a lot of nonsensical chewing of script, including Reeves in (supposedly) a dream using a knife in ways you shouldn't, and a very visceral raping of a young girl in the apartment next to Jesse's. They're all unrelated, unneeded, and actually bring down the film.

There's lots of reasons why audiences fled our screening - or why our theater was mostly empty to begin with - but it's not because our creative team and actors don't make a supreme effort. Writers Mary Laws and Polly Stenham join Refn to craft some terrific dialogue about the dangers of the LA fashion industry, injecting the actors with just enough great lines to keep the admittedly non-existent plot going. Refn makes Gigi and Sarah look like CG-ed buffoons, drunk with their own success but unprepared for Jesse's supposed wholesomeness to be actually real. Fanning and Malone are simply terrific together and apart, each doing quite enough to imbue their characters with powerful faults and enough darkness to cloud a bright room. There's a transformative scene for Fanning - who was 16 when she made Demon - which probes her Narcissistic side, led by Director of Photography Natasha Braier's absolute command of the digital canvas. There's a bit of bondage here, some lesbian necrophilia, and a ton of other things I hope you will discover for yourself. What I can share is that Composer Cliff Martinez turns in the best score of 2016; his 80's electronics bring back a bit of Miami Vice and mix it with The Matrix into something cool, dark, and intensely erotic. Seriously, this score will probably be used in both dance and bondage bars for the foreseeable future.

But is all of that enough to encourage you to see it? Simply put, summer is the wrong time for The Neon Demon, and I'm sure many will dismiss it as purely fetish/lesbian/murder fare. Its plot is simply a device for Refn's sadomasochistic tendencies to re-emerge, just as they did for Only God Forgives, and there's entire minutes here where no dialogue is present. Guerrilla-style movie making like this will doubt confuse and shock audiences who might not be ready for the sort of brazen sexuality and visuals behind it. But consider that films like these simply aren't made anymore, due to Hollywood's drunkenness over billion-dollar franchises and a diminishing American audience with too much drama and quality television to binge watch. And yet it should be seen. Whether you like the final effect or not, taking a chance by supporting a film like The Neon Demon should be on every cinephile's To-Do list this summer. If not, our movie-going future is doomed to be filled with more predictable summer fast foods and less banquet-styling grandeur.

While The Neon Demon is not for everyone, it can be easily agreed that so much of is quite spectacular. Led by a great cast, exceptional cinematography, and the best soundtrack of the year, it's also the wildest and weirdest ride I've seen in awhile. That support won't garner it long lines at the theater, but it's clearly not concerned with that. It's an experience, not a film, and that will either weird you out or impress the hell out of you.

The Neon Demon is rated R for everything under the sun and has a runtime of 117 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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