Taking Delight in Depravity: ‘The Neon Demon’

After 2013’s Only God Forgives, I thought that the Danish film director, Nicholas Winding Refn, had entirely lost me as a fan. Unlike his earlier, more accessible films, Only God Forgives was an extreme: a mean-spirited, pandering film about nothing, a movie which thought of itself as very interesting and very smart when it was absolutely neither of those things. I found myself in the presence of somebody else’s dream; beautiful and weird, but entirely slow and uninteresting to me personally. When Refn does indulge in these beautiful, slow, violent fantasies, the key to enjoying it is whether you are prepared toaccept his vision and his style or not. With Only God Forgives, my mind and body fundamentally rejected the vision he set out, as I just couldn’t allow myself to indulge such an, in my view, ugly film.

My surprise was complete and utter when, after seeing his new film, The Neon Demon, I found myself utterly and completely entranced by it. It has all the same problems as Only God Forgives, and yet I found myself swaying onto the other side of the scale. It too is mean-spirited and some would say pandering, but with this experience I found myself totally immersed into the world Refn had created. The sharp angles of his vision, the red colours, the sinister beauty; I was totally in awe of all of it. Suddenly, all of the problems I had associated with Refn had become insignificant; this was a new level of self-awareness from the director, a winking, tongue-in-cheek approach to exploitation and violence which, instead of reminding me of Only God Forgives, had me thinking back to the riotous eyeball gouging, eyeball stomping absurdity of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. The violence in The Neon Demon is absolutely disgusting. It is vile. If I there had been more than a couple of people in my screening, I’m sure I would have witnessed a mass walk out. The final thirty minutes of the film are just an extended sequence of sexualised, cruel violence, mainly inflicted on the heroine of the film. Just when you think Refn has gone as far as he possibly could, the very final sequence tops everything he has ever done; a sequence so absolutely outrageous and disgusting the only thing you can do is either run out of the room or stand up and applaud. I immediately decided that this was brilliant, this was just superb; I was watching with a huge grin and widening eyes, watching a director push his vision to the very limit of sadism. However, as I pondered the film later, this enjoyment raised questions. Is it wrong to enjoy this manner of fictional violence? I have long been a huge critic of ‘torture porn’ filmmakers, who make films simply for the sake of extremity and push their audiences without the benefit of a narrative drive or even a particularly well-directed movie. This is where the problems lie in my enjoyment of The Neon Demon. I have to ask myself; what is the difference between The Neon Demon and the torture-porn films that I have been lambasting for so long? Is there a difference?

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I decided that there is a very tangible difference, although admittedly it is a very thin line that Refn is skating on. He can be a hard director to defend; you can’t blame any viewer for being offended by this particular film’s final scene, and there is weight to the argument that the film is all style and no substance (a criticism which is levelled at every Refn movie). On the contrary, that’s what I find so delightful about much of The Neon Demon – how it relishes being entirely based around style and violence, and instead of shying away from that flaw it layers on more and more of it as the film continues. Refn’s film takes a metaphor and stretches it to breaking point, and crucially, uses it as the foundation for the violence it portrays. The well-known saying is that if an industry or profession is difficult or challenging, some people would say it will ‘eat you alive’. Refn takes this one simple line, which is used in the movie, and makes it a reality (yes, our heroine gets eaten. Really). It isn’t a particularly clever way to introduce violence into your movie, and it definitely isn’t a subtle way to do it either, but it edges just the right side of nasty, depraved fun for it to work.

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Again, it can simply boil down to whether you initially accept Refn’s vision and world or whether you reject it outright. I fully rejected the vision set-out by Only God Forgives, and therefore rejected the nasty violence in that movie, which I felt entirely uninvolved, and almost bored to an extent. The Neon Demon is tongue-in-cheek; I felt like Refn was winking right at me in that final sequence. I knew what was going to happen, he knew that I had already guessed what was about to happen, and he was enjoying watching me squirm in the simple anticipation of the violence to come. This is the complete opposite of the feeling I had when watching violence in Only God Forgives, where I felt Refn was telling me how insightful his vision was, how bold, how fresh, as a policeman stuck some hairpins into a drug-dealers ears. At least with Neon Demon I felt like he was being somewhat playful with his own outrageousness, that he seeing how far breaking point was instead of attempting to pretend there was an incredibly deep, subversive meaning to his own nastiness. Not that The Neon Demon is without its narrative complexities; the script is Refn’s best yet, crackling and whispering out of the actresses with a consistently sinister edge to every word, every line. This is of course helped by a breathtakingly good performance from Elle Fanning, who delivers some of the film’s punchiest, and softest moments. The difference with Only God Forgives lies in its accessibility, as The Neon Demon manages to be both a hellish look at fashion industry, but also a stylish and exploitative horror film. Its ability to be two things at once stands it above Only God Forgives, which fell apart entirely if you didn’t accept its original, and only, vision.

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Further emphasis on the difference between this extreme violence and another type of extreme violence is the new Eli Roth film The Green Inferno, which serves as a good reminder for the total crassness of torture-porn film making. Roth’s insistence to make his films as terrible and unbearable as possible continued with his new homage to Cannibal Holocaust, where a group of people who wish to protect the Amazonian rainforest crash-land in the jungle and, ironically, get captured and brutally murdered by the tribe they were trying to save. The violence is mostly as nasty as you’d expect; there are sacrifice scenes aplenty, cannibalism, typical of a Cannibal Holocaust homage. The problem is that Roth, in his typical eye-rolling crassness, decides to intercut the violence with moments of what he (presumably) intends to be humour. In a bizarre scene, the imprisoned group watch one of their friends get brutally murdered in front of their eyes, which is then preceded by a female member having a bout of diarrhoea , complete with comical fart noises (this lasts for almost a full minute of screen time). This is the very limit of Roth’s capacity for humour, resorting to levels of crudeness typically reserved only for Adam Sandler, in Roth’s persistently puerile attempt to shock and outrage.

In contrast I feel that when watching Refn’s work, he at least attempts to earn his use of violence by attempting to give it some semblance of narrative thrust. As disgusting as The Neon Demon can be, its nastiness is at least partially enlightened and driven by its story, however extreme the violence may be. Simple torture porn is used as a means to simply be as gross and as crass as possible; to sink so deep into depravity that neither the film nor the audience benefits from it. Through The Neon Demon, it feels as if Refn has managed to achieve a very difficult balance of depravity and self-awareness, where the nastiness is justified by the world it inhabits, and the director’s insistence to push the boundaries comes off as bold, rather than entirely provocative. Lots of viewers will react very differently to the film, but I felt thrilled watching it, as I was entirely on board with Refn’s ideas and motives and backing them to succeed the entire time. It has the same flaws as his other work but The Neon Demon gripped me and pulled me in, and kept a hold of me even when it started to enjoy its own nastiness. In doing that, I enjoyed its violence too; it felt bold, it felt fresh and it felt new, even when somebody could very easily argue it was none of those things. Refn made me think, in those final moments, that he was the most outrageous, daring, innovative and sadistic director working in the business today. That is quite an achievement.

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