“Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”
2016 has been the year of the troll. Since ORWAV’s last Top Ten, Britain has wrenched herself out of the European Union, Donald Trump has gone from being a toxic joke of an outside chance to the President-elect of the USA, and the existential dread of terrorism has reached globally cataclysmic levels.
All of this while the calendar has continued to mercilessly stalk a roster of the planet’s most beloved celebrities, striking each of them down systematically as if the last 12 months was actually Jason Voorhees and the likes of Bowie, Prince, and Alan Rickman were simply just a gaggle of incredibly talented teenagers visiting Crystal Lake at the wrong time.
It’s been a year of interminable kicks to the proverbial testicles, and one that has seen trolling emerge from its mostly subterranean online caves and graduate exuberantly into meatspace. Being vicious and provocative (and/or viciously provocative) has become a celebrated artform – applauded everywhere from the highest political offices in the world to the meme-filled newsfeed of any social media. Just check your mentions. Those of a certain age will find their name endlessly tagged into a stream of looping schadenfreude.
Trolling has become so entrenched in mainstream culture, it’s even become a necessary component of blockbuster movies. Take a look at Suicide Squad and scroll through the conversations commentators were playing squash with before and after its release: they nearly all conform to a pattern, all of which was fuelled by Warner Bros. Their entire marketing campaign of the DCCU’s ‘Cousin Itt’ was nearly a year of audacious trolling, so incendiary it was almost worthy of the Joker himself: lure audiences in with the tantalising promise of a brand new incarnation of the Clown Prince of Crime (with the further morbid sweetener that it would be the first since Heath Ledger’s iconic outing); make him fanboy-irklingly controversial by graffitiing his entire body with ink so painfully ignominious they will make the enamel on your teeth itch, saturate every facet at advertising’s disposal with his image, then have him feature in only a few minutes worth of entirely superfluous scenes – all of which you will have seen in the trailers.
HA HA HA HA HA!
Then there’s the man underneath the lime-green hair, platinum-grilled grin, and Damaged tattoo: Jared Leto, who claimed all the headlines (read: clickbait) on an apparently hourly basis as the world rushed towards August. Leto unleashed a reign of terror upon the Squad and its crew via ‘gifts’ of rats, dead hogs, bullets, and used prophylactics – all in the supposed name of “method” “acting” (pronounced emphasis on those bunny ears, Dr Evil fans) – and clearly had a bloody good time doing it.
What is most notable in the case of the DCCU’s Joker isn’t even the acts of so-called “marketing” – it’s who has perpetrated them and how audiences have reacted. Remember: Leto is a recognised talent of considerable pedigree. He is not a 13 year-old with an Xbox One and a headset. He is not a minutely-followed Twitter account with an egg as a profile picture. He is not an anonymous account manufacturing memes on 4chan. He is a world-famous, fiercely admired, Academy Award-winning actor.
The adolescent stories of Leto’s frankly eye-rolling attempts at attention-seeking were not leaked to the press, either. Quite the opposite, in fact: instead, they were proud boasts of ‘craft’; active members of WB’s marketing battalion; and no doubt influential in ensuring Suicide Squad‘s multi million-dollar box-office riposte to movie critics and becoming the most googled film of 2016.
Trump, Farage, Leto, The Joker, even Death. You might love them, you might hate them – but you will not be indifferent to them. They, and more like them, have helped coronate 2016 has the unabashed year of the troll, which is exactly why this spiteful annus horribilis deserves The Neon Demon – a perfect symbol for this insidious behavioural movement and cinema’s most striking entry of the year.
Its director, Nicolas Winding Refn, agent provocateur, bon viveur and auteur, is a high-ranking lieutenant in the aforementioned ranks of trolls-of-varying-degrees – a moniker he’d no doubt relish; after all he has essentially made a career out of polishing provocation into a decadent artform. After years of bouncing between earning a reputation as one of the enfant terribles of the European arthouse circuit and peculiar one-off gigs (he directed an episode of ITV’s Marple), widespread success finally pulled up in the vehicle of 2011’s Drive – a stylish neo-noir adaptation of a James Sallis novel. Drive unified arthouse and mainstream audiences, provided one of the most tremendous and integral soundtracks of modern times, and is probably sat upon the shelves of every twenty-something man you know, nestled snugly between Pulp Fiction and Fight Club.
This success propelled Refn not only into the zeitgeist but also the global limelight, but what happened next is emblematic of his gleefully antagonistic behaviour: he delivered Only God Forgives to the 66th Cannes Film Festival (a competition that had awarded him Best Director for Drive just two years before). Sold, wrongly, as Drive 2 (it reunited Refn with Gosling), Only God Forgives flings audiences into a brutal story of revenge and lurid depravity, and is flamboyantly anti-mainstream – deliberately so. Gosling has just 17 lines, despite being the lead; there is a pronounced, awkward Oedipal vein that runs throughout the story; and the film culminates with a son slitting open his recently deceased mother’s corpse and plunging his hand into her womb. This is Refn’s ostentatious rejection of popular cinema and an epic act of trolling towards the director’s new, larger, and much more conventional demographic.
The Neon Demon is probably more Only God Forgives than Drive – it, too, is obsessed with sex and death and very loosely acknowledges Ancient Greek mythology – but it remains more coherent than the middle child in Refn’s ‘American trilogy’. The story is simple enough: a teenager, stuck between the ‘hoods of child and adult, ventures into a Big Bad City to seek her fortune and mayhem ensues – the twist being this particular teenager is based on the 16-year-old girl that Refn (ever the showman) claims “lives inside of [him]”. “I can’t sing, I can’t dance, I can’t write… no real talent,” Jessie, played by Elle Fanning, laments early on in the film before becoming coldly resolute: “But I’m pretty, and I can make money off pretty.” It’s part glittery riff on the Narcissus myth, part millennial take on Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, and a euphoric upping of the ante in the pot of cinematic trolling.
If Only God Forgives was a headbutt to the nose of every popcorn-munching, franchise-supporting cinema proletariat, then The Neon Demon is a wry but poisonous jab at the pretentious glitterati – those who must endlessly pour over every inch of art to squeeze out a divinely higher, hyperbolically intellectualised meaning. Superficially, the film is Refn’s satire of the fashion business: models nearing their ‘expiry date’ collude to murder and cannibalise the industry’s Next Big Thing, while another scene shows a passionate display of lesbian necrophilia, but these images are so obvious in what they are apparently trying to demonstrate. Too obvious. Purposefully obvious, to the point that these features of so-called ‘satire’ cannot be taken seriously.
And therein lies the point. Refn has made a film that is shallow, yes, but proudly so – and that is the joke. There is a continuous goading on his part to overanalyse the juvenilely conspicuous arguments the film is making, which means most will dismiss The Neon Demon as a glib and vulgar attempt at satirising fashion, the selfie generation, and our virulent addiction to ourselves. But if we truly pierce Demon‘s flesh, peel it back, and peer inside its dark and bloody void, we will find… nothing, but the feelings that Refn is purposefully trying to draw out of us – from its tinglingly scored, hallucinatory opening sequence to its eye-gobbling finale.
How did Trump secure the White House? How did the likes of Farage grab the wheel of the EU referendum? Why are people still talking about Leto’s glorified cameo? Because these individuals, these agitators, these trolls offer something that Refn does through The Neon Demon: they offer controversial, spectacular, alarming difference.
This year, Anomalisa quite deftly captured how frustratingly numbing life can be, but it also serves as an excellent metaphor for the current predicaments that worry cinema: everything looks and sounds exactly the same. Audiences are currently, sadly, stuck in an echo chamber, faced with the realisation Theodore Twombly undergoes in Her: “Sometimes I think I have felt everything I’m ever gonna feel. And from here on out, I’m not gonna feel anything new”. Films like Suicide Squad have tried to meet this criticism by ‘offering something different’ (ha ha ha ha) but they remain part of a particular brand, which won’t change despite the purported takes and subversions. Twombly concludes his ruminations with the idea he is destined to just experience “lesser versions of what [he’s] already felt” – but he hadn’t seen The Neon Demon.
Studios may not want to admit it (and, seemingly, nor do audiences, according to the year’s box office receipts), but – and just whisper it for now – superhero fatigue has begun to set in. We have seven more films-with-capes galloping towards us on the horizon of 2017 (including three further chapters in the already gargantuan MCU saga), which may account for those early, nagging feelings of overindulgence, but the real truth lays in an examination of narrative stakes – or the genre’s apparent lack of any. Take Batman, for example: a vigilante who has been uncomfortably promoted to the rank of superhero. This is a character who has always been best served at street level, a guardian of his hallowed Gotham City, and yet his latest incarnation was most recently seen operatically brawling with alien-gods over the fate of the world. Batfleck will be seen again, of course, next year where he will join a league of alien-gods (and other ‘super’ beings) – this time for a battle, presumably, for the entire larger universe.
His quirk, his stake, has been broken – and no one bats an eyelid.
Nor do more than a few balk at the idea that, despite 14 entries into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, not a single important, leading character has perished – regardless of the catastrophic risks each film constantly reminds us about, and there have been more something-large-falls-out-of-the-sky sequences than credible villains in this franchise alone. The superhero genre is doomed – and rest assured, like the Western before it, it is doomed – because the stakes are always being ludicrously raised, ironically because they have to be. But, for now, the breaking of this narrative elasticity is accepted as part of the genre while Refn’s own extremities (which, admittedly, are far less socially conventional) are openly rejected because they swarm and attack popular sensibilities.
Yet, and although it sounds absurd, The Neon Demon‘s excesses are remarkably formulaic in this essence. Its bound-to-be-infamous lesbian necrophilia scene is knowing oneupmanship on Only God Forgives‘ womb-fondling sequence, which in turn was an answer to the same actor stomping through someone’s skull in Drive (apparently there is such a thing as acceptable ultraviolence). Critics and mainstream audiences must learn the valuable lesson The Neon Demon is offering: the crusade for our collective immortal soul has already been lost and all cinema should make us feel something, perhaps now more than ever.
That’s why The Neon Demon is the best film of 2016, the year of the troll: because it dares you to feel something: delight, horror, euphoria, nausea, fear, exhilaration, disgust, glee.
You might love it, or you might hate it. But you won’t feel indifferent towards it, and that’s important.
In 2016, The Neon Demon isn’t every film. It’s the only film.