The Neon Demon
Starring Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Keanu Reeves, Christina Hendricks, Alessandro Nivola
Is director Nicholas Winding Refn a one hit wonder? He charmed the socks off fanboys, critics, and audiences with Drive in 2011, but has failed to sustain that momentum. A look into his early work showed promise, especially with Bronson (2008) where he gave Tom Hardy his first big leading role. The Danish director is certainly focused on style more than narrative… actually more than anything, including performance and dialogue. Drive worked well with limited dialogue, mostly because of Ryan Gosling & Carey Mulligan’s performances in complete sync with the visuals and music. The Neon Demon, for all its electric color hues, electronic music and wide eyes from Fanning, never becomes anything more than a failed experiment.
“That deer in the headlights look is exactly what they want,” Ruby (Malone), a makeup artist tells Los Angeles modeling industry newcomer Jesse (Fanning). 16-years-old and fresh off the bus from Georgia, Jesse lives in a scary apartment in Pasadena, trying to get her stiletto in the door of the modeling world. Her natural beauty and innocence has captivated top designers (Nivola), photographers, and even her seedy hotel owner (Reeves). Worse, she has become the enemy of other female models in her field. “True beauty is the highest currency we have”. Jesse admits that she can’t sing, dance, write, nor did she finish high school. “But I’m pretty,” she confesses to Dean (Karl Glusman), a protective, older boy, under the assumption they are starting a relationship.
Refn nearly ensures that ticket buying audiences unfamiliar with his style will hate this film.
The Neon Demon lacks a pulse or emotional connection found in Refn’s previous films, even the forgetful Only God Forgives had enough development to keep you watching. It mistakenly advertises itself as a horror film (a desperate plea to get butts in seats), we would be so lucky if Refn could settle on a genre. Instead he throws everything at the viewer, channeling existential directors like David Lynch, artful-grotesque filmmaker David Cronenberg or even the mindless cinematic pandering of Terrence Malick. Refn nearly ensures that ticket buying audiences unfamiliar with his style will hate this film. In fact, during the screening I counted nine walkouts. Why wasn’t I paying attention to the screen instead of the shadowed figures exiting the auditorium? Because Refn’s long takes and narrative pause for visual overtures afforded my eyes countless minutes to look around until the story continues.
There is a different color of purple in nearly every frame of the film. Refn loves shooting driving shots, with the neon lights cascading across glass. He is also very fond of shooting in the dark, and most of the film takes place at night. Where Drive and Bronson had violence appropriate to the story, The Neon Demon features necrophilia, blood vomiting, and body part digestion for fetishism. In last week’s episode of Game of Thrones, Davos explained ‘I didn’t actually see a demon, it’s a metaphor’, which reminded me of this film. I didn’t actually see a movie, just a metaphor for one.
Acclaimed director Refn fails to combine his stark visuals with narrative subject matter in a cohesive manner.