I don’t want to give too much away, but there’s a scene in Nicolas Winding Refn’s visually arresting, plot-devoid The Neon Demon where Jena Malone, lying naked in the dark in the midst of a full moon, births an unseemly amount of blood right out her vagina. And she almost seems to be…enjoying it. The friends who I saw this with dubbed it her ‘moon period’ or ‘moon time’ – I can’t remember which. Cool beans, Refn. Have you ever actually like, had a period? I can tell you with absolute certainty that it’s never that gratifying, nor nearly that effusive. Don’t know about you, but hemorrhaging buckets of blood naked in the moonlight is never on my fun times to-do list.
Speaking of fun times, The Neon Demon has a lot of crazy amazing moments that leave you wondering whether to laugh, gasp, run away, or throw up (or all four). I should maybe get this out of the way now: if you’re a big fan of Pusher, Drive, and Bronson, but aren’t as into Only God Forgives, then The Neon Demon might not be for you. As one of the few people I know who doesn’t want to burn all the copies of Only God Forgives bonfire-style, the last two Refn films feel somewhat like companion pieces, at least from a visual perspective. If you thought Only God Forgives was nothing more than a temporary Jodorowsky-inspired detour into Refn-land, well, I’m sorry to inform you but you were wrong.
Refn has been pretty open about wanting TND to tackle the teen horror genre while challenging audiences during the viewing process. Regarding the latter, that’s pretty boss of Refn – I personally hate when movies are intentionally dumbed down for moviegoers. Challenge me, Refn! But…I don’t know how I feel about this film being marketed to gaggles of teen girls heading to their local multiplex to watch women commit unspeakable acts against other women. Maybe I’m just being too PC about this, but girl on girl violence always leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth, not to mention a disheartening message of suppression and lack of agency. Obviously Refn isn’t the only director playing around with female hate crime, so as much as I’d like to explore his ability, or lack thereof, to write or depict women, I’ll just stop here and move along.
Let’s get into plot a bit: Elle Fanning plays Jesse, a 16-year-old beauty fresh in town from an indeterminate part of the country, with indeterminate lineage (she’s very vague about her parents’ whereabouts). She’s not just another pretty face set on world domination – she has that It Factor that people talk about so damn much. Everyone, and we mean everyone, is falling all over themselves where Jesse is concerned: aspiring photog Dean, beyond creepy motel manager Hank (Keanu Reeves, perfect), modeling agency exec Jan (Christina Hendricks, blink and she’s gone!), Jena Malone’s make-up artist Ruby, The Most Evilest Models You Will Ever Meet (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee), predatory star fashion photographer Jack, and Alessandro Nivola, dead-on as a fashion designer sitting somewhere between a Tom Ford and a Marc Jacobs. Jesse’s only been in town for like, barely a week and these fools be BUGGING OUT over her. And she’s staying at a motel in Pasadena – she can’t even afford a motel in North Hollywood or the Valley or even Glendale for chrissakes! Clueless! Destitute! All of these people surround Jesse like hawks circling prey; every one of them wants to take and take and take from her – I would argue even Nice Guy Dean’s intentions aren’t always in her best interest.
But, like I said, she’s insanely beautiful. And she knows it. On a first date with Dean, Jesse brushes away her lack of talent: “But I’m pretty. I can make money off pretty.” Give this girl everything because this girl gets it! LA seems to be the place. And as someone who lived in LA and worked in the entertainment industry for a couple of years, I think Refn seems to get it, too. The parties that seem cool at first, the vapid conversations, the fixation on gossip and appearances, the inability to get away from the industry you work in even for a minute. Yes, it’s all there in TND, along with cannibalism, necrophilia, and maybe a little witchcraft thrown in, you know, for fun. You see, all of that positive and negative attention goes straight to Jesse’s head and her inner Bitch Goddess comes roaring out, leading to her eventual downfall and violent punishment.
I get where Refn is going with all of this. Vanity, that which permeates industries like fashion and entertainment, can be a dark and shameful and DANGEROUS place. And for teens growing up with social media tucking them in at night, with the ability to filter and present a blemish-free life to the world, it’s even scarier. Even trickier to separate that which is live and real from the dead and fake. Refn works (a little too) hard moving the plot along to its bloody conclusion and even bloodier epilogue (one word for you: eyeball.) But the plot feels secondary to the vividly dynamic glitz and gush of visuals that come at you, one after another. The Neon Demon is by no means a perfect narrative but it is absurd and beautiful and wicked and gory, all of which have their merits. It’s as if Refn watched Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance video one too many times and got a little caught up in all that Lady Gaga-ing, all that bad romancing. That’s just my fan theory on it, anyway. I may never want to watch The Neon Demon again, but I’m glad I watched it at all.