The Neon Demon

There’s not much that can be said about recurring themes in Nicolas Winding Refn’s films that hasn’t been said before, but here’s a recap: self-indulgent, hyper violent, misogynist, pretentious, shallow.

Things happen quickly in L.A. for Jesse (Elle Fanning): days after she arrives, her modelling career takes off.  Everyone who meets her – who isn’t also a model – falls in love with her beauty and her enticing, almost mystical, charisma.  But the city is tough, and there are people who want to take advantage of her – or harm her.

The Neon Demon is very much a Nicolas Winding Refn film.  The film’s lighting is absolutely stunning – high contrast colours hit all the right spots to create images worth staring at despite the unpleasantness that usually tags along.  Some situations are so revolting or horrifying, I was inclined to look away.  The script for The Neon Demon should read as a campy horror-thriller, with a runtime of about one-hour-and-15-minutes.  Refn has instead created a masturbatory (in more ways than one) two-hour pseudo-intellectual “understated” (or, dialogue that takes ages to get through) drama.  Imagine Wes Anderson – on a really bad crack trip – made a film with a morphined-up Kevin Smith.

The Neon Demon is a little too on the nose about its themes.  By now, most experienced moviegoers are aware of western obsessions and consumptions of youth and beauty, but by the film’s conclusion it comes across as a little too heavy-handed and, well, literal.  Nothing is being said that isn’t already obvious to the average person, nor is it being said from a particularly interesting or unique point of view.

With such lifeless characterizations, the film is not all that convincing.  There’s sympathy for Jesse, but there’s no real connection.  Her charisma seems to be entirely within the film – the audience will just have to trust the other beaming characters when they talk about her magnetic quality.  It’s not that Elle Fanning is giving a bad performance, but a lack of charm afflicts the otherwise talented cast, who all seem to be bogged down by the snail’s pace of the film.

The big question seems to be whether or not The Neon Demon is a horror film.  It could be: it has gore and violence.  While sequestered to the last quarter of the movie, it is overt, but not enough to be scary or even ironic – more confusing and repulsive.  There isn’t much suspense in The Neon Demon either.  It’s tense, weighing the audience down with the uneasy feeling that something not only bad but seriously disturbing is going to happen, but there is no relief for the tension.  The smothering, gratuitous heft even carries through to the film’s conclusion, after all the seriously disturbing plot points are rattled off: Necrophilia?  All in a day’s work.  Rape?  Several times over.  Cannibalism?  It’s as though it’s a struggle to actively deny oneself from eating people.

Refn is a very talented photographer and cinematographer.  He lacks storytelling capabilities, which makes The Neon Demon a poor example of narrative.


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Trevor Jeffery: @TrevorSJeffery

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