“I’m not as helpless as I look.” – Jesse
The above quote contains a lot of what you need to know about The Neon Demon, Nicolas Winding Refn’s (Bronson, Drive) horror film about beauty. Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a 16 year old girl who comes to L.A. on her own to become a model. Fanning looks every bit the part: young, wide eyed, pretty and vulnerable. We fear for her, until we begin to see the effect she has on people and realize that there’s something otherworldly about her, and Jesse is indeed far from helpless.
I praised the The Neon Demon upon its initial theatrical release last June, but apparently not many people read that review, because it ghosted from theatres faster than you can say “Refn”. In that review I singled out composer Cliff Martinez’s score and cinematographer Natasha Braier’s visuals for the almost hypnotic effect they had, particularly when working together in the dark cinema. I intended on catching it a second time in the theatre, but it was pulled before I got the chance (it opened on too many screens for a niche film like this which hurt its “per screen” numbers that decide whether it gets held over for additional weeks). The experience of watching it a second time at home was not as exciting as that first time, but barring cult status or a Nicolas Winding Refn retrospective this is as good as it’s going to to get. That said, many more are sure to still discover and appreciate this nasty bit of body horror on Blu-ray and other home movie services.
I still stand by my initial review (and if you’ll allow this critic a moment a hubris, I also believe it’s one of my better written ones), so for my full analysis of the film you can read that here. I’ll just add that this home video release is well timed, as I’d love to see people rocking some different Neon Demon costumes at Halloween parties this year. One of the film’s strengths is coming up with several looks for Jesse that have potential new horror icon written all over them.
The movie of course still looks and sounds great on Blu-ray, but still made me long for that bigger, louder experience and reminded me that I really need to invest in a good sound system.
Unfortunately the special features are a little scant, but at least there’s a commentary by Refn and Fanning, although they don’t exactly take a very deep dive into the film’s possible meanings. As abstract as his films may seem, Refn’s a pretty straight shooter and seems to operate mostly on instinct and what he thinks will look good and create a certain feeling. He doesn’t offer and deep insights or answers to more ambiguous parts as I’m sure he has no answers. Refn set out to make a horror film about beauty and that’s exactly what he did, maybe little more, certainly nothing less.
With such an aesthetically composed film, you would think it was all planned meticulously, but it was a rather shoot from the hip production that he shot chronologically and practically made up as he went along, which seems to work well for him. This is why the attention shifts more heavily to the other women (Jena Malone, Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote) in the last act, which I think works great as they almost literally steal the show. The fact that they were able to achieve so much on a relatively small budget once again speaks to the strength of cinematographer Natasha Braier.
When Fanning talks in the commentary about turning 17 during shooting, she hits on something that really makes the film works. For most of the shoot, she was an actual 16 year old playing a 16 year old, which is uncommon. The fact that she was underage and making a very adult film with a bunch of adults makes you realize why you feel an innate concern for her while watching the film, the performance aspect really enters once she transforms into something beyond the innocent, bright-eyed Jesse. Her age (now 18) comes through on the commentary track as well. It should be noted that anytime she refers to using “real blood” in the movie, she just means it wasn’t added later in post. Despite coming off as a little naive and giggly at times, Fanning and Refn seem to be on the same level in many regards and clearly got on well.
Composer Cliff Martinez gets some much deserved recognition for his contribution in a five minute featurette called “Behind the soundtrack of The Neon Demon“ which goes into his collaboration with Refn and the important role of music in the film. It would have been nice to include a music only track on the disc so you could fully appreciate Martinez’s work, but for some reason those fell out of popularity years ago.
Finally, “About The Neon Demon” is a disappointing extra that’s about as inspired as its name would lead you to believe. It’s basically a one minute trailer with very brief soundbites thrown in from various interviews with Refn, Fanning and Keanu Reeves. It all feels pretty rushed and slapped together, and contains very little actual information About The Neon Demon.
Does this deserve a spot on your Dork Shelf?
While I highly recommend this movie, this disc leaves much to be desired. I know it’s hard for distributors to invest much in physical media this days, particularly when a film under performed in theatres, but I think this is something that fans of horror and Refn would embrace a nice copy of. It’s currently selling at a premium price yet there’s not even a slipcover. There were several great posters and some excellent artwork for the film they could have used for a nice presentation, and while the one they went with isn’t bad, I think this poster in particular would have made for some great, eye catching (or swallowing) cover art.
A future special edition release of The Neon Demon on Blu-ray seems unlikely at this point so I would still recommend picking up this release, but perhaps wait until the price point drops a little.