Spoilers follow for The Neon Demon, Only God Forgives and several other films directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. You also may want to skip this one if you don’t want to read descriptions of sexual assault or remarkable violence.
By now, Nicolas Winding Refn has made enough movies to form an easily identifiable pattern. His heroes tend to be predators, punctuating the gorgeous-yet-mundane environments around them with extraordinary violence. Charles Bronson is not above murdering other inmates to liven things up and increase his notoriety; when pushed, The Driver stomps on an assailant’s head until it collapses like a watermelon. These are moody, macabre affairs that often go without dialogue for long stretches of time. When characters do speak, they’re either moving the plot forward or stating their motives and beliefs with unsubtle yet effective statements (“My hands are dirty.” “So are mine.”).
The opening moments of The Neon Demon play into what we expect from Refn. Its stylized font, background rotation of pastel colors and synthetic soundtrack are part and parcel with his other filmography, easing audiences into a small sense of comfort through familiarity. That comfort is swiftly dashed on the rocks as we cut to our “hero,” splayed across a couch, blood trickling from her neck to the ground as if she’s an ostentatious fountain in a murderer’s apartment. We learn that this is merely a staged shoot orchestrated by her boyfriend/amateur photographer, but the positioning still leaves its mark. Men in Refn’s world are stoic, all-powerful beings, while his first female protagonist, Jesse, is immediately rendered as a vulnerable, fragile creature.
In fact, Jesse’s unique ability somehow gives her less agency than Driver’s flat love interest. Despite being an underage girl who arrived in Los Angeles seemingly overnight, her presence magnetizes male kingpins of the fashion world, unceremoniously dumping experienced models to grant her a spot on their runways and in their studios. She also captures the interest of Ruby, a makeup artist with more on her mind than friendship, who is trailed by her own clique of experienced-yet-vain models. Every soul in LA wants something from Jesse, whether it’s her marketing potential, status or body; it’s up to Jesse to get what she wants without surrendering too much in the process.
This dynamic could have propelled The Neon Demon to examine how a symbiotic relationship can quickly become parasitic, but Refn aims his sights lower, embodying every cliche about big-city stardom under the sun. The models obsess over their plastic surgeries, frequently accuse Jesse of sleeping her way to the top, and pose philosophical questions like “Are you sex, or are you food?” We also watch as Jesse’s heart hardens over her fame in record time, and by the end of the film, she has been literally eaten alive by Ruby and her thrall. Plenty of decent (even great) movies don’t stray far from genre, but it’s telling that Refn’s first primarily female cast are trapped behind such pedestrian conversations and twists.
Before we return to the question of Jesse’s agency, it’s important to remember that Refn’s past protagonists were more than one-note murder machines. Bronson throws tantrums to get attention, and seems emotionally distraught after one of his more violent episodes lands him in a mental institution. Julian’s terrible mother effectively broke him from an early age, leaving him prone to sudden outbursts and a general sense of detachment. But even with their battered histories and struggles against a larger system, they are always given control of their destinies and the people around them.
Meanwhile, The Neon Demon is about what happens to Jesse, rather than what she makes happen. Even after she shifts past her doe-eyed phase, she is defined by the people who act upon her, wandering to wherever she’s next pointed. When she runs afoul of her landlord (played by an amusingly scummy Keanu Reeves), her then-boyfriend bails her out through payment and a confrontation. Jesse’s most significant moment of agency is fighting off an attempted rape from Ruby, who reacts by fatally shoving her into a pool several scenes later. While there are plenty of great movies that rely on subjects who are purely acted upon, it’s telling that Refn’s only leading lady to date is just as passive as most of the women in all of his other movies.
I say “most” because there’s one recent, notable exception that makes The Neon Demon look progressive in comparison. Only God Forgives features Crystal, perhaps the most evil mother ever given screen time. She reacts to the news that her dead son raped and killed a 16 year old girl with “I’m sure he had his reasons.” She calls her other son’s girlfriend a “cute little cum-dumpster” at dinner with the both of them (which leads to a confrontation where he also terrorizes his poor date, forcing her to undress in public). Over the course of her life, she apparently traumatized her boy to the point where he sees her slashed open stomach, reaches in and cradles her womb.
It was only after I read that paragraph back to myself several times, in the context of his latest film and everything that came before, that it finally dawned on me: Nicolas Winding Refn doesn’t care for women as three-dimensional humans. Even aside from having two films in a row where underage girls are either sexually assaulted or threatened with assault, they’re aspirational eye candy, move the plot forward through deception or death, or are the most horrific abusers ever spawned. When Refn’s films see women as goals, victims or dastardly manipulators, how could any worthy protagonist emerge from this mold?
Aside from the aforementioned pool shove and a suicide involving scissors, every moment of violence in The Neon Demon is an aggressively sexual act. A late nightmare sequence forces Jesse to deepthroat a knife as the landlord demands “Wider, wider…” Ruby, the primary aggressor, fully embodies the dated predatory lesbian trope. She is defined by the discomfort she causes to the audience, engaging in full-blown necrophilia on a morgue slate and releasing a river of blood from her privates under a full moon. It’s all campy, lascivious violence that would render the whole film into a grindhouse spectacle if it weren’t presented through the eyes of an elegant cinematographer.
The Neon Demon is a great time if you’re looking for blood-curdling violence set against stunning Los Angeles skylines,, but I can’t hide my disappointment with Nicolas Winding Refn. As a director who entered the popular consciousness with his portrayal of sociopathic, nuanced men, it’s hard to ignore how the women in his vision of LA only talk about their bodies and promiscuousness. Even a charitable reading of the film that labels it as abstract, vampiric horror (which explains the obsession with blood and cannibalism) can’t paper over how little Jesse’s presence matters in her own movie. When even art house films can’t figure out how to make their female protagonists useful, it demonstrates that Hollywood aren’t the only ones who have a lot of work to do.