Review for The Neon Demon (2016) Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Starring: Elle Fanning, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves. IMDB says “When aspiring model Jesse moves to Los Angeles, her youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will take any means necessary to get what she has.”
“She has that… thing”
I can’t stop thinking about The Neon Demon. It’s a lot like the first time I saw David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. I knew I saw a film and I think I understood what it was about, but there were things I saw within the film that, for days, I was trying to figure out. I was trying to piece together the story and what certain scenes/moments/looks/shots meant. Thankfully, The Neon Demon tells a linear story, but the composition of the shots and the visuals make me wonder if I even understood the real story it was trying to tell. Trust me, I’m as confused writing this as you are reading it.
The Neon Demon is the latest film from writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn (which for me sanity I’ll be referring to as NWR for this review) and tells the story of Jesse (Elle Fanning) a girl who has come to Los Angeles to pursue a career in modeling. Jesse finds success early and her career takes off quickly as she meets make up artists, seedy motel owners, other models, photographers, and fashion designers. It’s enough to make her head spin as she unknowingly traverses the gorgeous yet dark underbelly of her new life. The acting is fine. Nothing remarkable jumps out and no single performance stands out. I think that has more to do with NWR’s style and the script than it does with the actresses/actors abilities. I’ll talk more about that later, let’s talk positives first.
This film is absolutely beautiful. It feels like you could pause at any moment and you’d have either frame ready artwork or an advertisement for a big time fashion designer in style magazines. Even the darker moments, some of which are hard to watch, are so beautiful that you can’t look away. What further entrances you is the score. Cliff Martinez takes a minimalist and atmospheric, almost Wendy Carlos type, approach to the score and the effect is nothing short of mesmerizing. As soon as the colorful art deco titles appear in the screen, the driving score begins like a beasts heartbeat as it awakens.
The film begins to misfire as the story progresses. I don’t want to label this film style over substance, but there are moments that make you scratch your head. We have no real time frame and it hurts some of the character arcs. Some characters make decisions in a seemingly hastened manner, which don’t fit with their previous actions. Other characters say things that are total opposite of who and what they represent and those moments take you out of the film and make you roll your eyes. I’m trying to stay vague with who does what because I don’t want to give anything away. The dialogue is rough. Some of it I can see as a satirical look at the fashion industry, but most of it feels clunky and poorly written. Maybe that’s why Ryan Gosling said so little in Drive and Only God Forgives (NWR’s previous films). But with those films, his actions combined with the films visual metaphors, make up for the lack of dialogue. You’re able to understand the story and decipher what NWR is trying to say. The Neon Demon struggles to find that balance and ends up relying heavily on visuals that are often inexplicable. The film looks and feels like a combination of Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, and Alejandro Jodorowsky films, but it lacks their execution.
That being said, I dug this movie. I feel I enjoyed this film more than I should have. I almost feel wrong for liking this film. There are some moments that are truly jarring and borderline disturbing. Like Gaspar Noe jarring. NWR continues down his divisive path making unapologetic films that you get or don’t. It seems like commercial success has taken a back seat to artistic vision and metaphorical messaging. Hell, I don’t even think commercial success is in the rear-view mirror. I anticipate people will hate this film and I could definitely understand why, but there will be a small group of people that love this film and I might find myself looking more and more towards that group.
If you’re even the slightest bit interested, I recommend seeing this in theatres. The bright and colorful visuals really pop on screen and the music wraps you up in a thumping and bumping synth blanket. The film is one of the more original visions we’ve seen this year and supporting creativity financially is always a good thing. If you’d rather just wait and stream it/rent it through whatever service you have, that’s totally understandable.
As a warning to those that see it: the film has a few, but prominent, scenes where a strobe light effect is used. Combined with the lights and colors, it could cause epileptic seizures, so be careful.
I was first introduced to the craftsman that is Nicolas Winding Refn back on September, 23, 2011. I went to the Bow-tie Cinemas Harbour Centre in Annapolis to see Drive. I was immediately mesmerized by the direction and beauty I was seeing on the screen that night. With a story that badass and an equally amazing Cliff Martinez score how could you feel any less. After that night I was hooked.
The next film I tried from Refn’s roster, Bronson, was equally as impressive and packed with an amazing performance from Tom Hardy. Once hearing that Refn and Gosling would once again team up for 2013’s Only God Forgives, I impatiently waited for another visit inside the mind of this mad genius and what he had to show us. When the day finally came I rented Only God Forgives on VOD since it wasn’t playing near me and was once again enchanted to no end. Refn, Gosling and Martinez each playing their own crucial part, gave me another reason to adore Refn’s films. Gosling’s performance was amazing, having him speak no more than about 100 words the entire film and still being able to portray such a troubled character.
Finally over the past few years while waiting I eventually saw Fear X, Valhalla Rising and the Pusher Trilogy. His only feature to date that I have not seen is Bleeder, only because the film is not available in US dvd or blu-ray format, and I currently don’t own a region free player or else it would be on my shelf with the rest of his work. So now I was finally caught up on all available Refn and just awaited the release of this weeks release of The Neon Demon.
I have refrained from watching anything but maybe 30 seconds of the first trailer for this feature so I went in having really not being exposed to anything besides the script itself. Finally it was time to see what Refn had up his sleeves for audiences this time.
When the end credits finally rolled I immediately knew that this movie would not be for everyone, but it was for me. I’ve already seen a few reviews saying bad things about this movie and some claiming that nothing happens in the movie, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Refn is potentially saying a lot within the context of this film on so many levels that can be looked at.
There are so many ways you can take this film. One point of view is that LA is the “Neon Demon” in question. A city that has so much alluring qualities for those seeking stardom, pushing people to do whatever it takes to be on top and stay on top. Also you can take the film as a stab at the modeling industry and the ridiculous concept of what is beautiful in today’s society. You have to have something special and have “the look” that agencies are looking for, as well as looking “thin” and “perfect”. One line that encompasses this whole notion from the film says “beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Then there’s also the true evil in the film, the endless competition between women. If you’ve ever heard girls talk about one another you know exactly how nasty things can get as they demean each other behind each others backs. Jealousy is the most dangerous weapon in Refn’s game, and falling victim to it can have dire consequences, as can being on your high horse.
The performances in the film we’re great but if I had to pick a favorite it would be Keanu Reeve’s performance. His portrayal of a despicable LA motel owner is beyond revolting. One sleazy and pedophilic remark after another is enough to leave a bad taste in your mouth. Reeves completely nails the creep factor. Fanning was also amazing and provided a real solid performance despite being the youngest cast member. I can very much see Refn casting her in a future film as his did with Gosling.
The cinematography in the film is absolutely beautiful, with scene after scene that could be snapshots hanging on a gallery wall. Crafting a beautiful shot is one thing that Refn has become a master of to say the least. The film is both overwhelming and minimalist visually over the course of the film, including the old school simplistic credits. Also the score which is once again done by Cliff Martinez, simplistic and very minimal at times, but highly impactful.
I don’t want to give any major plot points away or outcomes but let’s just say you’re in for a strange journey, complete with scenes of necrophilia and underage shenanigans that will make you squirm in your seat. I also think this film is one in which subsequent rewatches will make you appreciate it more and you will discover new things you didn’t catch the first time. I know I’m already planning to see this again over the next week. If you’re looking for a little more unique flavor for your weekend theatre experience I highly recommend checking out The Neon Demon.
FTS SCORE: 80%
The Neon Demon is in DC/Baltimore area theaters now.