Most Oscar nominees, save perhaps for those in the acting categories, are drawn from two unofficial pools. There’s that year’s crop of big-category contenders (which for 2016 would include Manchester By The Sea, Moonlight, La La Land, and perhaps 10 or so others), and a group of lavish, mostly respectable but not quite Oscar-worthy movies, often blockbusters (which for 2016 could include movies like Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them or Doctor Strange). This is especially true for the categories least familiar (and easiest to confuse with each other) to Oscar viewers: Sound Mixing and Sound Editing, where some of the noisier Best Picture nominees tend to compete against some of the noisiest movies of the year. Yet there should be more to these categories than noise—especially Sound Mixing, which this year could easily accommodate a nomination for the little-loved Nicolas Winding Refn thriller The Neon Demon, a surefire non-competitor in all other categories.
First, some rough definitions, from someone who has admittedly never worked in film production. Sound Editing (sometimes referred to as Sound Effects Editing) awards the creation of the movie’s various sound effects, whether on set or in an effects studio. Sound Mixing (in the past sometimes referred to as just Sound) is slightly closer to what theater kids might think of as sound design (though Sound Effects Editing has elements of that, too); it’s the way the movie’s various recorded sounds are mixed together to form a coherent or effective soundtrack, and less dependent on specially created sound effects (though, again, it can include those elements).
The Sound Mixing category has been a home to less effects-oriented movies like recent winner Whiplash and recent nominee Inside Llewyn Davis, though both of those movies had musical performances to consider. The Neon Demon takes place in an ultra-stylized version of one of the entertainment industry’s seedier-looking corners: the world of Los Angeles modeling. With its young, vampiric strivers desperate for success and a nighttime scene of characters looking out over the L.A. skyline, it makes an odd sort of companion piece to La La Land, only with more necrophilia, cannibalism, and eyeball-puking.
But like La La Land, The Neon Demon is so intensely visual that its sound becomes absorbed into its visual experience. While it’s not as deathly quiet and uneventful as Refn’s Only God Forgives, Demon nevertheless includes several long passages where no one says anything and not much happens, like the opening scene, where the camera pushes into and then backs away from an artsy, pretend-bloody photo shoot as clubby music thumps on the soundtrack. Refn then cuts away and goes quiet for the first dialogue scene between newbie model Jesse (Elle Fanning) and makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone). The first 15 minutes continue like that, alternating between blasts of domineering audio and score-less, song-less conversations. Even in the bathroom at a club where the deafening music ought to bleed through the walls, the movie goes heel-clop quiet when the characters are isolated from the crowd.
That clip-clopping high-heel sound recurs frequently on the soundtrack, as do the clicks and cha-chunks of cameras and their flashes going off. Both noises bleed into the movie’s visual scheme in a way that’s at once vivid and abstract. When Refn emphasizes the flashbulb noise on the soundtrack, then mutes all sound but the synth-driven score, the flashbulbs that continue going off still look heavy and menacing. The effects of the deliberately cranked sounds linger even as the soundtrack transitions to nothing but score.
This distinctive quality could arguably be rewarded by nominating Cliff Martinez’s original score. But the way the Martinez music dominates in several of the movie’s most horrific scenes plays as much like sound effects as music. During a pivotal murder scene and a gruesomely disgusting moment late in the film, the score gradually grows louder, without an appreciable change to the tempo or overall sound. The intensity has to do with the volume, as the other sounds of the murder and its aftermath are relatively subdued, as these things go.
Much of the effectiveness of The Neon Demon’s sound design relies on a simple quiet-loud dynamic, like a Pixies song (throwing up eyeballs, ah ha ha ho) stretched out to sometimes absurd degrees. Its aesthetic also owes a lot to music videos, where sound and image are often prioritized over strict storytelling. This use of sound isn’t necessarily more sophisticated than the explosion-heavy work that often characterizes this category. It’s of a piece with Refn’s movie, which flaunts its heavy sense of style while failing to offer any astounding revelations about the predatory nature of the fashion industry. What it would do as an Oscar nominee for Sound Mixing is offer a decidedly different approach than the more realistic recreations of gunfire or drum solos.
Refn’s film won’t and didn’t work for plenty of audience members, and it’s hard to imagine the stereotypical Academy voter making it past the opening half hour, let alone all the way to the part with the eyeball. But just as a Transformers movie might be cited for the technical skill involved in depicting a hell of a lot of clanking and whirring, the fullness of the sound mix’s role in realizing Refn’s sometimes ridiculous, sometimes inspired Neon Demon vision need not be ignored. If Oscars in technical categories fall somewhere between appreciation of transporting art and acknowledgment of effective craft, they ought to better recognize the vast middle ground between awards bait and blockbusting.