The Neon Demon is the anti-populist performance art cinema you need
Earlier this week, an enterprising Reddit user posted a graphic in the r/Movies subreddit that showed the correlation between box office performance of big-budget movies and their rating on the movie review aggregating site, Rotten Tomatoes.
What we see here is pretty intuitive. Better movies make more money (and Kung Fu Panda will make money no matter what). But what then are we to make of the bad low-budget movies? What about the movies that cost a scant few million and actually take a chance at saying something bold? What about the movies that are simply misunderstood, but held hostage by a composite numerical score that does not explain the scope of the film’s ambition?
Take, for example, the new movie, The Neon Demon. It’s the latest from Danish auteur Nicholas Winding Refn, best known to American audiences as “The guy who did Drive.” In Refn’s younger days, making movies in his native Denmark, he specialized in gritty tales of ruddy men doing violent things. His protagonists were anti-heroes, criminals, aggressively masculine, difficult to empathize with—and totally compelling.
But once he started making movies for U.S. audiences, he backed away from the ultra-real in favor of the ultra-stylized. Drive was as much powered by its electronic soundtrack and beautiful art direction as it was by Ryan Gosling’s quietly compelling turn as “The Driver.” (And we mean really quiet. Gosling only averaged about 10 words per minute throughout the entire movie.) It was a film about mood built around another anti-hero, but this time he was pretty, and so was the film.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Personally, I think the worst thing is giving the audience what they want to see, because in a way it’s almost disrespectful.[/quote]
Since that time, Refn has made two more films, Only God Forgives and now The Neon Demon, which tells the story of a teenage model new to LA with dreams of making it big in a town filled with people who want to consume her for her beauty. It’s a natural progression in the Refn filmography, as each one of his movies is more stylized and more surreal than the one that came before it. And the heroes have gotten quieter, too. Gosling returned to star in Only God Forgives and said 100 words throughout the entire movie, which in 2016 terms basically means he said five tweets. Jesse, the heroine of Demon—who is played by literal Disney Princess Elle Fanning—primarily spends the movie emoting while being gorgeous, as her adversaries gorgeously plot against her. One of those adversaries is real-life model Abbey Lee playing a fictitious model in the film.
Refn started forcing his audience to immerse themselves in his films by giving them tableaus instead of narrative queues. Viewers were given the responsibility, or perhaps the luxury, of deciding what a Refn film was trying to say. With such a subjective point of view, how can a person honestly review one his films at all? How can one person say that his film accomplished its objective, if the only intention is to provoke an emotional reaction?
The bottom line is, the current art of Nicolas Winding Refn means everything and nothing at the same time. I once interviewed the director for another project of his, a book of movie posters made during the salacious peak of grindhouse cinema. He explained that the best way to get audiences in the door for that kind of schlock cinema was to promise them the most lurid visuals imaginable, to make promises with a poster that no film could live up to. And while Refn has become a master of the provocative, the promotional materials for his films are intentionally vague and practically obtuse. The only thing you are promised is that something will happen, and that you’ll just have to show up to find out.
When I asked him about this chasm between presentation and reality in his films in a previous interview he said,
“Personally, I think the worst thing is giving the audience what they want to see, because in a way it’s almost disrespectful. These people are here to give you their precious time. You should really take them on an odyssey, and the best way to do that is to give them what they don’t expect. That is not for everyone, but they certainly won’t forget it, and I think that’s more interesting than anything else, because that’s what art does. Art travels with us for the rest of our lives if it has an impact. Whether it’s good or bad is almost irrelevant, because not about quality. It’s about how you experience it.”
Refn’s films are, in effect, the anti-blockbuster. They are the anti-superhero chronicle. So if you’ve been looking for one, The Neon Demon is your antidote to the 4th of July wiz bang spectacular that has come to define summer at the movies. The Rotten Tomatoes score is hovering at an unflattering 46 percent, but don’t let the stigma of the “bad movie” detour you. Refn makes art for the thinking filmgoer, and even if you think his art is trash, it still respects the viewers enough to let them make up their own minds.
And that sounds like just the right kind of movie to be patronizing on Independence Day.