The Neon Demon

Year: 2016
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Elle Fanning, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves
Written by Noah Jackson

Well, this is it; the movie so infuriatingly dull and shallow, but at the same time rich with metaphor and symbolism. The movie that will come off slow and plodding, but entertaining enough to keep the audience seated, because it just might get better. The movie where the ending actually could ruin or save the movie, depending on who is watching.

The movie in question is ‘The Neon Demon’, about an aspiring model who quickly rises to great fame in the cut-throat fashion world of Los Angeles. It comes from acclaimed Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, who has been booed at Cannes (now twice), and had one of his films sued for a misleading trailer (Drive). And let me tell you, his latest effort is really strange in every sense of the word.

Now, I haven’t seen the big turn-off film he made, ‘Only God Forgives’, but I have seen ‘Drive’ and ‘Bronson’. On those two movies alone, I would say I’m a fan. He clearly knows his stuff when it comes to the craft. His vibrant colour palette, mostly neon, illuminates the subtle and visual stories he puts on screen. I loved ‘Drive’ so much, I own the Blu-ray and have one of the posters, and though ‘Bronson’ isn’t what I would call an excellent film, it is still very good and uniquely presented. And that is what makes this director special – that not only is he extremely competent, but he is UNIQUE. There’s no one who makes movie today that does it quite like him, and anytime a unique filmmaker has a new release, I will want to check it out, because even if it isn’t the best, it’s at least a breath of fresh air in what is now a stale and repetitive film industry that is oversaturated by blockbusters.

‘The Neon Demon’ however exemplifies everything wrong with shock value scriptwriting. Plain and simple, the first two acts are dull, from a story standpoint, and the third act is pretty over-the-top. It is so overdone that it becomes hard to take seriously. But let’s break down what exactly goes through this movie.

The best part of this movie is director Nicolas Winding Refn, not writer Nicolas Winding Refn. The cinematography is lush, vibrant, and is a really good reminder that this director knows how to make things look great. The score is also great, enhancing the visuals and adding more depth to the already unnerving story. However, I would argue that this is where the positives stop, and the rest descends to average, and even to outright dumb.

The acting performances are “alright”; the biggest issue being mainly found in the script, especially with the leading actress. The main character, Jessie, is played by Elle Fanning, who is a very attractive actress, and also a very good actress. She is talented no doubt, and she pulls a very effective transition over the runtime (a whopping six hours…I mean, two hours, it felt more). But the big story element that she is given, which is being the “it girl”, having everyone stop and look when she enters a room, does not suit the performance. The script keeps pointing at her and shouting “SHE IS IT. SHE IS THE IT GIRL. SHE IS SO IT”, but it never does anything to really prove that, other than force the message down my throat. And while that may work sometimes, it is mostly because the movie convinces me that this is what I, the audience, am supposed to believe. It doesn’t work here. All the other performances are suitable – not great but not bad. Jena Malone is probably the only other actress that goes above her peers, but not by much. She seemed very passive and felt more like a plot device, which I would blame on the script.

Now that I haven’t overused my scapegoating the script, let’s talk about it. The visuals drawn from it are incredible. There’s a lot of metaphors used and a lot of subtle symbolism, mostly involving vanity, beauty, and mirrors. The dialogue is out-of-place at times, but it’s not appalling. The ending was reported by the cast as “improvised” on set (and it really shows), but it does makes sense with the story. The big problem is a lack of support for what it has to offer; it gives these great elements that would work if they weren’t so shallow. There’s one too many subplots, and the main story feels undercooked and undervalued in the context of the overall film. And the script doesn’t help the film’s pacing, which starts slow and silent and never really picks up. That is until the ending, but the ending doesn’t really pick up the pace, it just pours on the shock value in the hopes that it will replace actual storytelling. In all honesty, the ending didn’t ruin the movie for me, but it didn’t help out the film either. However, if you consider yourself squeamish or not interested in gross things, don’t go see this movie. Also, if you have epilepsy, definitely do not see it, it will induce seizures (trust me on this, someone in my theater did).

Overall, the movie is an exercise in how far one is willing to go with a director they trust. For me, it stops here. Nicolas Winding Refn is a good filmmaker, but it proves to me I need to do more research before I see another of his films. Likely, Refn’s fanboys will see this and love it, and forgive how absurd the ending is, because they will enjoy the metaphor. I, however, had been pushed to a point where I simply did not believe anything else that was put on screen. The best comparison I have is David Lynch. For the first two acts, you think it’s one story, and then the rug gets pulled out from underneath with no warning and the whole piece falters as a result. To summarise, ‘The’ Neon Demon, is visually and audibly stunning, but the story is uneven and too strange.

Noah’s rating: 5.0 out of 10
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