Movie Reviews: The Neon Demon and The Shallows
Elle Fanning in a bad art movie, Blake Lively versus a very bad shark.
You'd think that any movie featuring lesbian cannibalism and lesbian necrophilia—and even a splash of lesbian vampirism—would at least be fun. But Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon is a bloody slog, an attempted shocker that's too hysterically ridiculous to shock anyone wise in the ways of gore movies. Fun it's not.
The story is set in the world of high-fashion modeling, and its banal message is that the fashion industry eats up young models and then spits them out (literally!) when they lose their dewy glow. Elle Fanning gives a sleepwalking performance as Jesse, a 16-year-old waif who has made her way to Los Angeles to get into the business. "I can't sing, I can't dance, I can't write," she says. "But I'm pretty, and I can make money off pretty." A big-time agent (Christina Hendricks) is, like everyone else Jesse encounters, bowled over by her star quality. (This strikes a bogus note: the mild-mannered Fanning is in fact very pretty, but she has none of the imperious deportment of real supermodels.)
Jesse is befriended by an insinuatingly affectionate makeup artist named Ruby (Jena Malone), who has a side job at the local morgue, where—among other things—she applies paint and powder to the resident cadavers. Ruby immediately sizes up Jesse as the industry's next big star. How does she know this? "She has that…thing," Ruby says. She introduces Jesse to two of her friends, a pair of production-line blondes named Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote). They are established supermodels, and instantly realize that Jesse will soon be elbowing them out of the runway spotlight. Sarah, delivering one of the movie's many overcooked lines, says, "What's it feel like to walk into a room, and it's the middle of winter, and you're the sun?"
In the movie's hackneyed conception, the fashion world is a snakepit, and everyone in it is rotten—the designers, the photographers, the models themselves. (Even Jesse, it turns out: "I'm not as helpless as I look," she says.) Keanu Reeves glowers through a couple of scenes as the manager of the shabby Pasadena motel where Jesse lives. (Security is so lax at this place, and the script is so woozy, that at one point a mountain lion slips into her room.) Reeves's character is the kind of guy who's not above pimping out 13-year-old girls, and he, too, drinks deep from the movie's well of silly dialogue. (Discussing Jesse with another man, he says: "That's some real hard candy.")
Refn is a gifted film technician, and while he is done no favors by his female script collaborators (English playwright Polly Stenham and American newcomer Mary Laws), the movie draws substance from the top efforts of cinematographer Natasha Braier, production designer Elliott Hostetter, and returning composer Cliff Martinez (whose hammering electronic score almost carries the story past some of its narrative embarrassments).
But Refn himself has gone wobbly in the five years since Drive, the existential action movie that marked his international breakthrough. The Neon Demon resembles his last film, the entirely preposterous Only God Forgives (which, like this one, was booed at the Cannes Film Festival). Once again we're given a tour of the director's shtick: the dead talk, the ritualistic framing, the pointlessly flamboyant brandishing of the color red—red walls, red carpets, red-lit corridors, red-bathed faces, and of course quite a bit of the blood these chromatic flourishes are intended to echo. There's a baroque bloodbath sequence toward the end of the movie, and some business with an extruded eyeball that you don't see every day. But none of this is likely to give pause to anyone familiar with the work of, say, Dario Argento. There isn't much new about the girl-on-girl humping scene, either (although there's a corpse-tonguing moment that has the tang of originality). Refn may have intended the movie to be an over-the-top hoot—an in-your-face neo-gore flick. But over-the-top is all it is, and that's not enough.
A summertime shark movie really only needs two things: a shark, of course—preferably a huge one—and somebody for the shark to menace. Unlike the 1975 Jaws, which offered a rich weave of plot, characters, and action, The Shallows, director Jaume Collet-Sera's take on a Black List script by Anthony Jaswinski, relies almost completely on those basics. The movie does its job, if not a lot more, and it does it in a slick, quick 87 minutes. Thank you, Jaume.
Blake Lively is Nancy Adams, a Texas med-school dropout vacationing with a friend at a Mexican coastal resort. When the friend makes solo plans one day, Nancy ventures out alone to a remote beach to do some surfing. Paddling through the water, she comes upon a dead whale with its side ripped open. We think, "Uh oh," but Nancy, most happily, doesn't.
Blake Lively carries this movie with total ease. She's in every scene, but we never tire of her amiable presence and her winningly naturalistic acting style. We bear with her as Nancy Skypes via phone with her dad and sister back home in Galveston (her mom's dead, whatever), and we don't hold it against her that a few too many surfing shots ensue—because in the last of these, Collet-Sera pulls off the movie's niftiest effect. As Nancy streaks down the face of a wave, we detect within it the shadowy presence of a really big shark. It's a chilling image.
Nancy wipes out on her last wave, seriously gouging her leg. She swims to an outcrop of rock nearby, trailing blood in the water. From this point on, it's shark time.
Collet-Sera cranks up tension with a beat-the-clock device: the rock on which Nancy has found safety is only exposed at low tide. Now the tide is rising, and soon the rock will be submerged. Again: Uh oh.
The shark attacks in various alarming ways, distracted only occasionally by a trio of ancillary characters who unwisely appear on the scene. Two of these are Mexican surfer boys with a GoPro camera helmet, shooting the last footage of their lives. Then there's a stumbling drunk who makes the numbskull mistake of wading out into the water. (We soon see him crawling back up the beach, leaving the lower half of his body behind.)
Nancy employs various clever stratagems to dodge her piscine assailant. There's a convenient flare gun at one point, and a useful herd of stinging jellyfish. The movie ends as we know it must—although the exact way in which it does struck me as dubious. But hey, it's summer. And for those in search of a way to evade the latest blockbuster eruption, The Shallows will probably do.