THE NEON DEMON (2016): Nicholas Winding Refn’s Golden Buddha

The metaphor of the Golden Buddha is a humorous bit of Hollywood lore. Lew Hunter passes it along in his classic Screenwriting 434 (Revised ed., 2004). In a nutshell, it teaches the lesson that every screenplay is, in essence, a pile of crap. It’s how the writer molds, crafts, and adorns that lump that matters. Artistry determines whether s/he can transform it into a thing of beauty like a golden statue of the Buddha.

Applied to The Neon Demon, Nicholas Winding Refn’s 2016 slow-burn horror-thriller, the Golden Buddha metaphor is apt. From the standpoint of form and style, it is a well-made film, beautiful to watch. In other words, Refn has applied the golden paint to his Buddha with skill. As a story, the movie is a rather thin and clichéd tale. In other words, the statue’s gilding does not hide the material from which its maker has created it.

Theatrical Poster for THE NEON DEMON, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50235396

Theatrical Poster for THE NEON DEMON, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50235396

A beautiful teenage girl, Jesse (Elle Fanning), arrives in Los Angeles to try to break into the modeling business. Miraculously, at the tender age of 16, everything goes her way. Soon she is closing a major designer’s show. Of course, this goes to her head in a major way. Her quick success draws the ire of two experienced and jaded (read: 21-year-old) models, Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee).

Thank goodness Jesse has already found a friend, makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone), to guide her through the shallow world of surgically-modified, anorexic backstabbers in which she finds herself. Unfortunately for Jesse, Ruby also figures as a monstrous queer. She’s a lesbian who reacts with murderous rage when Jesse rejects her aggressive attempt to have sex with her. The outcome is deadly for Jesse. But Ruby is not only a murderer. Refn also shows her as a necrophiliac, a cannibal, and a practitioner of the occult.

As defined by media professor Harry Benshoff in his 1997 book Monsters in the Closet, this association of queerness with grotesque cultural taboos is an example of a classic Hollywood paradigm that has paired queers of all types with monstrosity over the course of American cinema history. In turn, this stereotype has helped reinforce the image of LGBTQ people as “murderous gays” (to borrow a term used by film critic Robin Wood apropos Hitchcock) in dominant American ideology and culture.

Watch out for lesbians in the fashion industry, Refn seems to be saying, because they’re going to kill and eat you if you cross them — that is if they’re not already busy making out with cadavers or participating in a Satanic ritual. Along with this homophobic trope, Refn presents straight men as either sensitive weaklings — Dean (Karl Glusman), Jesse’s would-be boyfriend — or as pedophilic rapists — Hank (Keanu Reeves), the manager of Jesse’s cheap Pasadena motel. So, yes, Refn does not neglect to critique male heterosexuality as well.

Even so, looking at cinema as a whole, straight men have played the full range of roles, from psycho-killer villain to squeaky-clean hero. How many LGBTQ characters have appeared on screen in roles on the latter end of this spectrum? Compare this number to how many (like Jame Gumb in 1991’s Silence of the Lambs) are perverted sociopaths who need to be hunted down in their lairs and killed? Refn has no personal artistic obligation to present ‘positive images’ of LBGTQ people. Still, his Neon Demon is just one more nail in an already well-sealed coffin of queer ignominy.

Why bring this up now? With an apparently fascist kleptocracy about to take power in the United States and reactionary nationalism on the rise in many other parts of the world, the balance of political power has shifted towards homophobes and queer haters. Films like The Neon Demon — however well-intended they might be — reinforce the irrationality that fuels fears of and anger at sexual and gender difference. The Golden Buddhas of the future should be filled with dharma, not the same old bullshit.