It takes a special kind of movie to be this awful, and indeed, a mindset to have such singular firmness in one’s abilities to create a film that is so far beyond contempt.
To put it another way, I hated, hated, hated “The Neon Demon,” the new film from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, whose 2011 flick “Drive,” unloved by myself but not so by audiences, is a work of absolute genius next to this piece of dire flotsam.
While “The Neon Demon” purports to be a thriller and a quasi-horror film, what it really is is a mean-spirited, misogynistic paean to the value of physical looks above all else. And to those who are not — or believe they are not — as attractive as someone else in their midst, the film’s message is simple and vapid: Beauty is the only thing worth killing for.
Why? Just why?
Going in, I was expecting, if not high art, at least an enjoyable, stylistic exercise in contemporary horror, a sort of “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” for the internet age. It appears I gave Mr. Refn far too much credit.
And yet credit must be given. It’s unkind to unload a barrage of insults without saying anything nice, so I will admit that Mr. Refn’s direction is assured and professional. As much as I dislike the end product, I cannot, in all journalistic honesty, say that “The Neon Demon” is a badly or incompetently made film, for it is neither. Mr. Refn is a professional, and his handling of the “material” is solidly realized. Some of the acting is OK, even if most of it is anything but.
Here my praise ends. If you wish to not have your illusions or your sensibilities tampered with, stop reading now. You’ve been warned.
The plot, such at is, of “The Neon Demon” finds teen runaway Jesse (Elle Fanning) arriving in Los Angeles with big starry dreams in her eyes (is there any other kind?). Since the film is all about looks, I shall here comment that Miss Fanning’s Jesse is made out to look as plain Jane as they come, but she has a certain “something” about her that apparently is Kryptonite for fashionistas anxious to find the next best thing. What that je ne sai quois is we never discover, but Mr. Refn in his screenplay, co-written by Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, forces us into submission that not only is Jesse the “it girl” Hollywood has been looking for, but that all females around her either despise her outright or desire her so.
“I can’t write, I can’t draw, I can’t sing, but I’m pretty,” Jesse says while gazing over that cliched cliff at sprawling L.A., “and I can make money off of pretty.”
Ergo, girls — and boys — forget anything anyone ever told you about your character and what’s on the inside that matters.
It’s certainly not the actress’ fault, as Miss Fanning does her absolute best with what little she is given. Ironically, given the film’s singular obsession with looks, is that we are asked to believe too much at face value, mainly that all characters say precisely what is on their minds and act as if no consequences shall befall them for their actions. And that the world is inhabited by a populace of monsters — all, that is, save for Jesse.
Naturally, she must therefore be debased and destroyed.
Does this plot sound familiar? If so, I entreat you to throw “Showgirls” on your Blu-ray player this weekend and have yourself a laugh-filled evening with a stiff drink. (Better yet, do it in a group, preferably outdoors.) And, unlike, “Neon Demon,” that 1995 camp classic at least had the decency to wash itself in gratuitous sex and nudity. Furthermore, it was rated NC-17, whereas “Neon Demon” gets an R for far, far, far more depraved activity. It is yet another object lesson in how the MPAA must revise its system so that “mature” films are no longer classified in the same league as “adult” material.
Yes, there is a difference.
Mr. Refn’s film is completely self-satisfied with its own perversity. I felt nauseated during an early scene where a sleazy photographer (Desmond Harrington) entreats Jesse for a photo shoot to remove all of her clothes (no nudity shown) and then shuts off the lights of the studio — to do what, we are never told.
That is the least of the film’s sins of abetting the viewer into being an accessory in degeneracy. Events happen later that I cannot describe even obliquely in a family-oriented newspaper, though at one point during the screening, my colleagues and I exclaimed a collective “oh no!” hoping against hope that Mr. Refn wouldn’t go there but, alas, he did.
I don’t mind art pushing the envelope, nor excessive violence or depravity and its application for cinematic effect, but what “The Neon Demon” ultimately adds up to is a sick fascination with its own excess. It is as if Mr. Refn is trying to make a movie that is a hybrid of David Lynch and Russ Meyer, filmed at the crossroads of his vile inner teenage fantasies of sex and murder.
And the hatred of women. Here is a film where every female character schemes to destroy Jesse in one way or another. Even the normally radiant Christina Hendricks, who appeared in Mr. Refn’s “Drive,” has a thankless bit part as a model agency honcho who must, just because, tear down a young lady in her lobby because reasons.
And Keanu Reeves, who must have owed someone a favor, shows up as a slimy motel manager who enters Jesse’s room one night without her knowledge to … no, I’m sorry, I can’t.
But maybe I’m wrong (it happens sometimes). For at the conclusion of the press screening I attended, I crossed paths with one of my fellow D.C. film critics.
“What did you think?” I inquired.
“Oh it was awful,” my colleague said. “I loved it.”
So there, I suppose is the valediction for this dirge of smut. Sometimes, apparently, moviegoers want for something awful. Mr. Refn has given them precisely what they crave.
But just like one of the characters near the film’s conclusion, I challenge you to keep it down once swallowed.
Rated R: Contains profanity galore, disturbing situations, horror violence, some nudity and sexual content, as well as aberrant sexual activity and gruesomeness beyond description.