Blu-ray Review: The Neon Demon

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Director Nicolas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon feels like a film with something to say. It's about an underage aspiring fashion model, Jesse (Elle Fanning). She's constantly assured of her natural, unaffected beauty, so she believes moving from her small-town home to try her luck in L.A. is a perfectly natural idea. She's completely unprepared for the cutthroat world she's about to enter.

Refn, who also co-scripted his original story (with playwright Polly Stenham and Mary Laws), makes some rather obvious metaphorical observations about how the modelling industry eats its own. The resulting film is an odd hybrid of horror and surrealist drama. It's impossible to take your eyes off of (thanks to Refn's beautiful eye for shot composition and Natasha Braier evocative cinematography), but it doesn't have much to add to the argument that high fashion modelling is a vapid, superficial, and potentially unhealthy industry. 
neon demon elle fanning.jpg Keanu Reeves is prominently billed, though he's on hand for only a few scenes as Jesse's violent-tempered landlord. Still, he has more screen time than Christina Hendricks, who checks in for just a single scene as the first agent Jesse meets with upon her arrival. More prominent is Jena Malone as Ruby, a makeup artist who initially seems like the most well-adjusted, grounded person in the film's skewed world. She's sympathetic to Jesse's situation, all too aware of how naive the young hopeful is behaving. Her character arc takes some inscrutable turns, but Malone is fascinating to watch.

Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote) are models whose 20s are rapidly slipping away, meaning their shelf life in the industry is reaching its expiration date. They're intensely jealous of the threat posed by fresh blood like Jesse. Both Lee and Heathcote are also extremely effective in deceptively simple roles, conveying wounded emotions despite playing what are essentially villainous characters. 
neon demon jena malone.jpg The secrets and surprises of The Neon Demon make the film worth easily worth a look. As a purely visual experience, Refn delivers (I felt the same way about Refn's Drive). Thematically it feels as superficial as some of its deliberately skin-deep characters. But the dream-like (or nightmare-like, in many cases) imagery keeps pulling the viewer along. Fanning is particularly captivating throughout, managing to make Jesse simultaneously sympathetic and abhorrent all without dropping her trance-like, intentional blankness. This is an ambitious movie that never really ties its ideas together, but it remains intriguing.

Broad Green Pictures' Blu-ray offers stellar audio/visual presentation (quite important for a movie that trades so heavily on its visuals). The score by former Red Hot Chili Peppers' drummer (and, as part of that band, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee) Cliff Martinez is nicely highlighted in the excellent DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround mix.

Special features include an audio commentary by director Nicolas Winding Refn and star Elle Fanning. There are two short featurettes, the better being "Behind the Soundtrack of The Neon Demon" (five minutes). Don't expect anything more than a minute of promo fluff from "About The Neon Demon."

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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