The Neon Demon (2016) / The Witch (2015)
Okay so by some twist of fate we ended up watching a couple of movies from the past year and for new movies they were pretty good??? e-GAD!
The Neon Demon (2016) – Nicolas Winding Refn
This movie is by the guy who made Drive, which I think we were both meh about, and some shit we haven’t seen. Yeah I literally remember 2 scenes from Drive – the elevator scene where he beats people up, and the ending stripclub scene where he beats people up. I just remember a feeling indistinguishable from staring at the movie poster for two hours.
This movie is about “fashion” “models”. A teenager named Jesse (Elle Fanning) shows up in L.A. to become an image, and we start with an art photoshoot where she’s done up as a murdered Barbie doll on a couch, which sets the persistently-artificial-and-disorienting tone solidly. Our other main character, Ruby (Jena Malone), is a makeup artist (both in the fashion industry and in a funeral parlor, doing the unsung work of making your dead aunt look like someone you’d want to remember) who helps our modelette (spell check? Why aren’t you calling my shit? It’s an official hashtag on twitter, it checks out.) get the fake blood off, then invites her to a party. There we meet two other models and we pretty much have our whole permanent cast of characters (the male characters often make a big impression, but they kind of come into the movie, do their bit, and leave. Or rather are left.) Of these two models, one is the product of extensive plastic surgery such that she has been nicknamed the Bionic Woman, and the other is British. (pretty sure that was an Australian accent, so technically right) (bro do you even Australia? (You might be right.))
The thrust of the movie is that Jesse has this effortless “it” quality, innocent and un-worked-on but able to embody the kind of beauty the (male) photographers are looking for and that the other two models can’t have no matter how they modify themselves. Ruby, who initially doesn’t seem concerned with her own looks but only in creating beauty in others . . . am I describing The Picture of Dorian Gray? Is this movie Dorian Gray?
Give me a second.
OK, in thinking through the rest of the plot, this isn’t literally an Oscar Wilde adaptation but the resemblance is unmistakable, in terms of setup and core conflicts and shit. Carry on.
But so anyway Ruby is a lesbian and infatuated with Jesse and thinks she can “have” her / her beauty in that kind of way. But as Jesse comes to understand that everyone wants to be/fuck her, and accepts her own Godhead, the mortals take exception.
But look, this movie isn’t about the plot, or thematic tensions, or possibly being Dorian Gray. It’s about bizarre, stilted dialogue and strange visual situations, set in a world of fucking neon spotlights like the Schumacherized Gotham City in Batman Forever. It’s kind of heavy handed but also gorgeously done; there’s a shot where Jesse and the Bionic Woman are sitting in front of makeup mirrors and it’s somehow lit and posed so that BW’s garish clown makeup only really shows up in her reflection and looks almost natural outside of the mirror. This shot in particular had me going “fucking hell is that cool.”
Also great is that the movie, visually and narratively, goes everywhere you want it to go if you’re a sick little piece of shit like us. Word. It gets top marks in pumas, jaguars, surrealism, corpse tits, eyeballs, etc. All the major categories of movie success.
I cannot help but compare this to the best of Jess Franco – or rather what I find right and good and awesome about his terrible exploitation movies. It is filmed with a surrealist’s eyeball, and has all the earmarks of a man (director, photographer, rapist, or what have you) who wants to see pretty women in pretty dresses get balls deep in blood, cannibalism and ritual sacrifice. In other words – fashion?
Some reviews seem to shit on the movie for being, in the reviewers’ eyes, too purely an allegory of the fashion industry and its abuses – but that seems shallower than the movie. The fashion industry is a convenient setting for Refn to look at our obsessive, involuntary drive towards beauty – both what is consuming and self-destructive, and what is completely necessary.
The VVitch (2015) – Robert Eggers
The VVitch is about a goat.
It starts with a family (father, mother, eldest daughter, Caleb, twins, baby) of Puritans in 17th century New England getting exiled from their community for unclear reasons, and setting up shop in an isolated farm next to a dark wood. Being out in the wilderness and away from the community is Very Bad for Puritans, and makes you vulnerable to all the evils of nature and the Devil (which you are already biospiritually inclined towards). They lose a baby to the Witch who lives in the wood (there is no ambiguity that there is a Witch there) and begin turning on one another. The livestock has mixed allegiances: the horse and dog are good, the twins are probably evil, and the billy goat, Black Philip, is I guess literally the Devil (ho-hum).
The aesthetics of the movie are a collage of history and fable stitched into a campfire story you’ve heard parts of since you were a child. Robert Eggers seems to have a passion for the history and folklore of witchcraft that gives this eerie tale ancient roots and girth that few other ‘horror’ movies dare to glance at sideways from the next urinal.
Most modern horror movies I’ve seen, even a period piece horror movie, do not give a shit about their characters, their antagonist or their period any more than an actor can care about his green screen<3, because it is nothing but a peg to hang your hat on, a means to an end. We need a protagonist (it helps if he’s a skeptic like our audience who doesn’t believe in any of the stuff he’s about to see), some red shirts to die along the way, and some spurned spirit or Chaotic Evil-aligned child to creep people out. Have the skeptic skeptically skept through the jump scares like a Disney ride until you either kill the spirit or the protagonist. This movie does something harder and better.
A quote from Eggers tells us that he wanted this movie to be ‘a Puritan’s nightmare’. In order to accomplish this, he had to know what Puritans feared, believed and cared about, and communicate that to a modern audience without making the characters Little House on the Prairie clones ranting illogically about God and the Devil.
This is one of the first movies I’ve seen in forever that lets characters’ religion be important to them and shape their worldview and reactions, without it being either for the sake of mockery or to make a ultra-blunt point about the evils of Christianity.
Take for example the conversation between the pious man and his son about whether or not the infant child they lost is going to hell or not, which is painful, believable and in no ways dismissive of the very characters it’s trying to get you to understand and know.
The last twenty minutes or so get a little lost (like a baby) (ohhhh… 🙁 ), unfortunately, in a way that probably comes of having a shit ton of source material that you’re really excited to use, but knowing you’re only guaranteed one opportunity to make a movie out of it. Basically it can’t pick which horror story it wants to be – the story of the Witch in the woods terrorizing them, the story of which-one’s-a-witch, the story of them all turning one by one to the Devil, the story of… the goat being Satan? Particularly bothersome for me is that you can’t have the goat be the Tempter in disguise but also ram someone to death. These are different stories, that both have their place, but can’t coexist in the catastrophe of the same movie. In one, the goat is the Devil, insidious and disguised among you; in the other it’s a brute beast, part of the cruelty and harshness of the unredeemed world of nature. Both fine Puritan horror stories but I don’t think you can have it both ways. For me this jives well with “what is ‘Goat’?” – a goat has those same shark-like eyes that say the same thing whether they are eating grass or about to gore you to death. It’s not that it all has to be super neat and tidy and not have any extra horrific side details – the best things in movies sometimes are the parts that aren’t “necessary.” The extra creepy detail that doesn’t need to be there in terms of the main premise is like a gift from the writer/director. But in the last half-act of this movie, it just can’t settle on what that main premise is.
Eggers still does an incredible job, though, of focusing most of the movie on the core Puritan fear – of being damned, of being lost to God’s love. The characters (even the weirdly un-shitty child actors) all speak in perfect 17th century dialect, and it isn’t just window dressing. They really act and think and fear like people from another time and culture, and there’s a horrible joy in stepping into their terrifying little world.