Danish hot-shot director, Nicolas Winding Refn, brought to the screen a bizarre, surrealist take on the modeling industry in Los Angeles. Meant to expose the dog-eat-dog, or more acutely the model-eat-model world of fashion, The Neon Demon promised a thrilling and horrific tale about a naïve new model and her ultimate doom. Despite the grotesque inclusion of blood, necrophilia and vampiric activity, the film unfortunately failed to evoke true fear. Refn did succeed on other fronts by creating a visually stimulating phenomenon and highly metaphorical look inside the insipid world of fashion.
The Neon Demon is a difficult film to review, mostly because I’m not sure if I fully understand it. With another three viewings I could possibly form some more concrete criticism, but as for now here is an immediate catharsis: What the f**k did I just watch? Why was it necessary? Wait, why did I like it?
The film tells the story of Jesse (Elle Fanning), a young, orphaned teen from rural Georgia who moves to LA to pursue a dream modeling career. Her pink cheeks and Bambi eyes pose a stark contrast the mega tall, bronzed, exotic models she’s surrounded by. As her star power begins to rise, she becomes a muse for high power designers and a target for competing girls.
Starting out as a clueless babe, Jesse transforms into an egotistical, slightly insane individual obsessed with her looks. She possesses a love interest for a hot minute, but her real icon of stability lies within Ruby (Jena Malone), a makeup artist Jesse befriended at the film’s open. However, when Jesse rejects Ruby’s very forward advances, she essentially seals her fate. Ruby, and two model friends, Gigi and Sarah, scheme to take Jesse down. The remainder of the film shifts from theatrical build up to a thrilling and horrific series of plot twists.
In theory, Refn holds nothing back to thrill and evoke fear from his viewer, but only halfway succeeds. Horror scenes in no way felt legitimate; either unrealistic in thought or execution. However, certain scenes were thrilling. The most successful moment of terror is drawn out from a dream Jesse conjures in which her dirty motel manager (played convincingly by Keanu Reeves) forces a knife upon her in a newly imagined fashion. She awakes from the nightmare from the sound of someone trying to break into her room. They fail to enter, but quickly move onto her neighbor. The walls begin to close in on Jesse, literally, complete with the sounds of rape and murder from next door. This was the one time in the movie I felt myself actively trembling.
The dialogue between characters is nothing short of vapid. The script felt so meaningless at some points that as serious as I tried to approach the film, I couldn’t help but conceal chuckles under my breath. Refn chose to highlight his cinematic vision and over the top effects rather than develop some sound writing. However, if taken with the perspective that the shallow, awkward dialogue is meant to reflect the same sentiments in the fashion industry, I loosely concur that it works as a metaphor.
Despite every misstep within the film, there is something to be said about Refn’s directorial style. When the screenplay failed to bring about fear, Refn’s intense and striking directing still managed keep his viewer interested. While I struggle to separate the artist from his work, because Refn frustrates and annoys me with his obvious God complex. The room got noticeably claustrophobic within the giant 2,000 seat theatre when his ego entered the room, but damn, that man creates compelling visuals.
Refn is a creative vision. The lighting, score, and supernatural framing made my tongue swell and it was like my skin was dripping with acid. I felt myself fully immersed within his very purposeful psychedelic trip of a movie. The concept is intriguing as well, but simply poorly written.
The film entertains above all, and at nearly two hours long, nothing felt unnecessary. Is it a revelation for the decades to come? Sorry Refn, but no. Will I watch it again? If not solely to bring about more understanding, yes to relive the cinematic light spectrum that is The Neon Demon.
The Neon Demon
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writer: Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws, Polly Stenham; story by Nicolas Winding Refn Producers: Lene Borglum, Sidonie Dumas, Vincent MaravalCast: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves
Run Time: 117 min