| 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.
This film had been on my “must see” list for months now after having seen the dazzling and subtly creepy promotional materials. I am a big fan of Refn’s work, which we know have divided critics and audiences alike. The film, as usual, is fantastic on a visual level. It is steeped in a profoundly well-conceived aesthetic. It is a cinematographic wonder to the eyes done by one of the great female cinematographers, Natasha Braier (which i’ve been a fan of for quite a while). Braier gave us some of the best cinematography this year as she bathed us with darkness and neon lights of downtown Los Angeles. Set to a pulsing synth score by Cliff Martinez, the film is at times reminiscent of a late ’70s or early ’80s horror movie, and comparisons to “Suspiria” are well-earned.
The second area in which the film excels is its typical NWR’s style of symbolism and concepts, which are equally rich; the premise is terrifying on a base level, and the audience can feel a disaster coming down on them as it lurches toward its twisted climax and denouement. It manages to be satisfying and chilling in its final statement, which is a potent cocktail of metaphors meeting harsh realities. Hence to say that ‘The Neon Demon’ is not for everybody. If you don’t like movies that has style over substance, this movie is not made for you.
| “She’s a diamond among a sea of glass.”
Like Quentin Tarantino, Nicolas Winding Refn is a master regurgitator of old genre films. “Drive” was the bastard son of Michael Mann’s “Thief” and Walter Hill’s “Driver”, with a few other ingredients tossed in for good measure (the film also owed a huge debt to Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Samourai”). “The Neon Demon” is his love song to Dario Argento (in particular “Suspiria”, which is visually and thematically referenced multiple times) and to countless Euro-thrillers from the seventies, starting with the fantastic but little-seen (in the USA) Belgian lesbian vampire/Countess Bathory retelling “Daughters of Darkness”.
Where the film fails to live up to its visual and thematic vigor is in its characterization. Fanning’s performance as the doe-eyed, nervous teenager runway darling struck me as a bit of a tough sell. This is partly due to her insouciant performance, which is initially convincing, but slowly begins to buckle as the film gains momentum. It could also be because the characters surrounding her are so vividly realized, even in spite of the fact that they maybe have one quarter of her screen time. Jena Malone’s performance as the obsessive makeup artist is profuse with lust and longing, while Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee turn in phenomenally understated performances that are nuanced, skillful, and completely entrancing.
I don’t say this to undermine Fanning’s talent, as she does a solid job overall, but as the film plunges into its second act, her character slowly becomes a void around the women circle—the show is stolen from her, which may be an intentional thematic move on Refn’s part, but it does leave a sense of imbalance. I frankly found all three antagonist’s performances (especially Lee’s) to be far more interesting, which seems counter-intuitive to the emotional groundwork that Fanning’s character should be implanting, but never quite seems to have the chance.
Male characters on the other hand are almost uniformly visually unpleasant and slimy or feral-looking (Desmond Harrington’s photographer in particular looks gaunt and menacing like a wolf circling a wounded animal). Only Dean, the prospective boyfriend, seems like a good, decent human being, but this is a movie that seems hell-bent on confirming the old adage that “nice guys finish last”. Keanu Reeves was good once he had screen time, but his character suddenly took a right turn during the second act and eventually was left out for the rest of it.
I have to talk about the soundtrack by Cliff Martinez, which is absolutely fantastic. If you could colour music, it would be neon. Haunting, atmospheric and at times ambient. It’s something like what Vangelis did for Blade Runner, dotting conversations and awkward silences with gentle sounds and then pounding the cinema with heavy beats reminiscent of a night club.
Thematically, as I said before, the film struggles to emerge, there is not a deep emotional connection established, no particular pay off nor a profound or interesting moral, yet the film clearly isn’t as interested in being a traditional, three act story and that comes with both pros and cons. I wasn’t turned off by anything in “The Neon Demon”, I had a blast and I actually want to watch it again on the big screen. Whilst I didn’t get too much of an emotionally satisfying experience I definitely had a lot for my mind to process.