The definition of style over substance.
I’ve been looking forward to The Neon Demon for a while now. Nicolas Winding Refn is the type of director whose work I will always look forward just due to how unique his films are. Like just about everyone else, I absolutely loved Drive. Unlike everyone else, I also loved Only God Forgives. I’m also a huge fan of Refn’s lesser known earlier work such as Valhalla Rising and Bronson, so all signs were pointing to me loving The Neon Demon as well.
I did not love The Neon Demon.
While I don’t necessarily think The Neon Demon is a good film, it is certainly an interesting one. There is some good to be found in the film, it just comes with a ton of baggage.
Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a is a 16 year old girl who moves out to Los Angeles in hopes of becoming a famous model. Almost immediately, a talent agency recognizes her for her beauty, and pegs her as a rising star. Jesse quickly begins ascending the ranks of the modeling world, but now without garnering the jealousy and wrath of fellow models. Jesse must contend with these models whilst furthering her career, as well as fend off against the likes of exploitative photographers, and a creepy motel manager Hank (Keanu Reeves).
This is a modern Nicolas Winding Refn film, which comes with a few guarantees: beautiful lighting and cinematography, enthralling music (from the great Cliff Martinez), long silences that are almost bordering on uncomfortable, and quick explosions of excessive violence. Neon Demon has all of these in spades, yet it’s not enough to elevate it above its severely underdeveloped characters and nonsensical plot.
I was really engaged with the first half of this film. I was engrossed in every scene, interested in where the plot was going, and I was captivated by the beautiful imagery on screen. If there is one thing Refn is consistently, it’s eye candy. The Neon Demon is absolutely gorgeous, in no small part due to Refn’s color blindness. Refn has difficulty seeing mid colors, which is why he has a tendency to contrast distinct colors. It helps to give all of his films a distinct visual identity, and that is on full display here.
The visuals are backed by an unsurprisingly fantastic score from Cliff Martinez, marking his third collaboration with Refn, previously collaborating on Drive and Only God Forgives. The constant pulsing from the score and the not-so-subtle synths help to emphasize the at times hypnotic nature of the beauty industry, as well as hint at an underlying feeling of horror. It ties together with Refn’s visual work in crafting a world that is beautiful, dirty, and dangerous all at the same time.
Unfortunately, Refn’s style overwhelmingly drowns out any real substance. The film has a lot of big ideas on physical beauty and the high esteem people hold it in, but ironically that commentary subtext remains pretty skin deep. About halfway through the film there is a particular horrifying dream sequence, and after that all logic of the film flies out the window. It goes to quite a few absurd places, and whilst I was expecting that from the film, it felt supremely unearned. Characters begin to murder each other and fuck corpses, and are given so little reason to do so.
Now this could’ve worked, but due to pretty much every single character being under written, it just began to feel like schlock. It’s hard for me to even comment on the acting, due to the fact that Refn directed everyone so flatly. Outside of a solid performance from Reeves and Jena Malone, every other performance is shockingly unnoteworthy. This is one of the few times in a Refn film where a lack of dialogue severely hurts the film. With Drive, the quite and vague nature of the Driver helped add to his mysteriousness, and turned him into an engaging character. In The Neon Demon, the quietness made all of the characters dull.
I wanted to love this film, I really did, but once the film lost me, there was no coming back. Not only that, once the film reaches its climax and enters its denouement, it goes on for a staggering 20 extra minutes. The film is way too long, and by the end I was checking my watch multiple times begging for it to finally end. And when it did, I felt oddly empty. The Neon Demon didn’t offer any fascinating sub text or commentary, nor was it able to craft a compelling narrative or characters. All it had going for it were pretty lights and music, and frankly if that’s what I wanted, I’d rather watch Drive again.