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Movie Review: “Neon Demon”

Jun 242016
 By , June 24, 2016

Neon Demon

“Neon Demon” – a film review by Gary Chew

An internet one-line synopsis of Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film Neon Demon ought to be taken totally literally. Here’s the sentence: “When aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning) moves to Los Angeles, her youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will take any means necessary to get what Jesse has.”

Now you’ve been forewarned.

Neon DemonI can’t say enough about Mr. Refn’s visual effects supplied for this macabre and self-indulgent picture. Colors, darkness and light, interesting slow pans, use of mirrors, the composition of motionless camera shots: they are all excellent. But that’s all I can positively say about the immature Neon Demon.

Let me make you a list, otherwise: Keanu Reeves is “perfect” in his cameo as Hank, the unshaven motel desk clerk where the lovely and vulnerable Jesse checks in for her first visit to the City of the Angels. Hank’s temperament seems to be that of a serial killer, although we can’t be sure. If the Bates Family had ever been able to grow their hostelry business, the dump where Hank works would be the Bates’s Pasadena location.

Jesse is, we finally learn, a virgin; but after Hank breaks into her motel room and inserts a long-bladed knife into her mouth, we can’t be certain. The knife as metaphor is sort of obvious; and Jesse’s state of mind in the next scene following the unresolved assault would indicate Jesse is a virgin no more.

Neon DemonNeon Demon routinely leads you into circumstances that aren’t carried out to the conclusions  suggested; while on the other hand, it only very subtly implies what might be happening at the moment where the camera is not “looking.” The best example of that might be when Ruby (Jena Malone) is watering flowers along the edge of an empty swimming pool, but then methodically turns the water hose and guides the stream into the dry pool itself. You’ll have to see the movie to deduce why Ruby redirects the flow.

Ruby’s accomplices in jealousy and hate are Jan (Christina Hendricks), Sarah (Abby Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote): high fashion-looking models with that nasty cheerleader or sorority girl personality some young females covet. Except for one male character (who plays pretty dense), all the men in this photo play are consummate jerks. I use the word “jerk” instead of all the others I can readily conjure.

Sex and death and more blood than you’ll probably want to see in one movie are the backdrop: lots of cutting of the skin … by accident or intended … persists.

Neon DemonThe narrative is almost recognizable. It seldom wants to clarify or make anything plain. This makes it difficult for a moviegoer to resolve in his or her mind why a large wild cat is lying on Jesse’s bed, one of the first times she opens her motel door late at night. Thank goodness we get a line of monologue later indicating that Jesse had inadvertently left her balcony screen door open on exiting that bleak room; but still, no resolution as to why the wild cat didn’t injure anyone, nor as to how the hell Hank got rid of the beast. But boy howdy, don’t we get all suspensed-up while Jesse is screaming about who’s in her dark room … and it’s a wild animal? Overall, the effective soundtrack music here plays a large part.

Just to make you more aware of what you’re getting with this Demon, look for other scenes that depict or suggest necrophilic lesbianism, telepathic lesbianism, and implied sadomasochism. Then … for good measure … cannibalism.

Nicolas Winding Refn has a way to go before he does a motion picture as well as David Lynch.

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Gary Chew was a classical music host, programmer and producer on Capital Public Radio’s KXPR 88.9FM, Sacramento for 18 years. He retired in January 2007. Read more about Gary's long and storied career here.

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