Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Network Zero Watchlist #1: The Neon Demon

Welcome to Network Zero Watchlist - a (hopefully) regular diary of every horror movie we've suffered through for better or worse. First watches, rewatches, timely revisitations of old favourites, anything goes. I'm your hostess, Sinister Sam (wait... that's a Muppet). Come up with a name for me. KEEP IT CLEAN.

[contains spoilers]

Our first adventure comes in the form of Nicolas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon, the much-maligned tale of Tinseltown sleaze. The movie was famously booed at Cannes, so I initially went forward expecting something awful: needless gore, misogyny and violence at the very least. My verdict as the credits rolled: I've seen a lot worse.

Winding Refn is known for his unrelenting style, sometimes over substance - Drive won a bevy of praise, but Only God Forgives was viewed as an exercise in blood-lit drudgery. (I like both films). The Neon Demon is easy to attack for this reason: it's an assault on the eyes, a rabid high-def hallucination, a Tumblr glow aesthetic blog come to life. There is a story, paint-by-numbers as it seems - innocent Jesse (Elle Fanning) is the new girl in Hollywood, looking to make her way in the modelling industry, but there are many enemies and allies ready to prey on her nubile young flesh.

Winding Refn doesn't shy away from gross visuals, but I've found much more offense in movies like Hostel which present artless gore porn for the simple glee of it. Even The Neon Demon's most uncomfortable scenes - a nightmare of sexual assault, the molestation of a corpse - are neither normalized nor eroticized, which is more than I can say for many male-led action films. Jena Malone's treatment of the dead body is supposed to be disturbing, and yet it also doesn't read like a cheap shock tactic. A river of menstrual blood may be slightly too heavy-handed for some, but it's tastefully shot in shadow. You can handle it.

The inclusion of cannibalism was a huge focus for the critics, though it seems like a teddy bears' picnic in comparison to NBC's Hannibal. These bloodthirsty moments only make up a small portion of the story, and are laced with dark humour. The problem might be that Winding Refn isn't skilled at satire - everything looks so serious that this is the message a viewer might receive.

My largest criticism is that the movie often feels a little slow, dragging its feet to some ominous conclusion. The cast is pretty awesome, most notably Abbey Lee Kershaw and Bella Heathcote, who play Jesse's Barbie-doll rivals. Refreshingly, the male characters are a simple backdrop for the women to work against; tools to move the action forward; footnotes.

The music, composed by longtime Winding Refn collaborator Cliff Martinez, is probably the standout feature for those who'd still prefer to leave the film on the shelf. If nothing else, check it out on Spotify and thank me later.

Network Zero Score: 4/5, calm down Cannes.


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