My, what a treat it’d be to spend even five nanoseconds in the mind of Nicolas Winding Refn. Neon strobes, vile torture, cannibalistic corpse-kissing nymphos – Refn’s style blends sinister sleaze with posh, club-centric pop artistry that glows a vibrant, sadistic hue. We all knew The Neon Demon would submerge Los Angeles’ modeling scene in a dead-sexy taste of dog-eat-dog warfare, but with such little storytelling? Even for Refn? Don’t get me wrong, he’s the master of style over substance – and that’s coming from an Only God Forgives apologist – yet his latest piece of work comes off as egotistically narrow-minded.
If you need to be reminded how important that whole “substance” thing is, here’s a perfect example.
Elle Fanning stars as Refn’s muse, a not-quite-legal midwestern beauty with dreams of becoming runway model royalty. As soon as she arrives in town, Fanning’s supple vixen catches the eye of designers, photographers and colleague alike – but not all attention is good attention. While a makeup artist (Ruby, played by Jena Malone) sets her passionate desires upon Jesse, two rival catwalkers (Bella Heathcote as Gigi, Abbey Lee as Sarah) are threatened by the scent of fresh blood. The more recognition Jesse gets, the more her least favorite fans gaze upon her with jealous, vengeful eyes. Vanity, fame, celebutante immortality – every day brings Jesse closer to having it all. Unfortunately, LA has a reputation for chewing people up and spitting them out like day-old meatloaf…
Refn’s never been one to shy away from social issues, which might have spurred his screenplay collaboration with female writers Mary Laws and Polly Stenham. Together, the trio champions a cast led largely by women (sans a few minor characters added for a masculine spice). Alessandro Nivola stresses the importance of physical appearances, while Keanu Reeves (a creepy lolita-lovin’ motel owner) and Desmond Harrington (a border-crossing photographer) assert misguided obsessions – but that’s about it. Refn’s intentions assert how females can be just as depraved, twisted and “strong” as their male counterparts, yet there’s no denying that Jesse is ogled by Ruby in the same perverse way a male character would. God bless Jena Malone’s tantalizing fixation, but there’s no statement being made through a lesbian switcheroo.
Therein likes the real problem with The Neon Demon – it’s a movie you’d expect to mull over for hours afterward, yet there’s nothing worth digesting. Refn’s stories are always second to cinematography, but movies like Bronson, Drive and Only God Forgives delicately balance plot and artistry like a clown spinning plates (for the most part). Images typically tie into an advancing tale, but in The Neon Demon, they grossly outweigh a story that’s predictable, bland, and far less cheeky than Refn might think.
Characters are essentially winking at the camera when something “astonishing” happens (Malone’s continued tease that she MIGHT like Jesse, when their romantic scene is far-too-long coming), just like how Jesse’s iconic rise seems flamboyantly rushed. The pace at which Jesse achieves notoriety rockets forward at unbelievable speeds, forgetting to build a character who grows vain and brash in mere days. Flashy images and lighting filters speak louder than the characters themselves, who lack a leading presence that Ryan Gosling, Tom Hardy, Kristin Scott Thomas and other Refn collaborators have been able to boast.
Tonally, every scene is underbaked. Saturated, beautiful and astoundingly scored (Cliff Martinez mixes synthetically sleazy pop undertones with a porno-thriller-esque beat), The Neon Demon plays with visuals on a level that many other directors simply can’t fathom – but they’re still desperately hollow images.
Imagine cooking a stew and tasting it halfway in. None of the ingredients have properly mingled yet, and you find yourself chewing on distinctly different flavors like raw onion, stringy meat and hard carrots (the same can be said for Refn’s scenes). Add to that a suggestion that Refn borrows HEAVILY from Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin, and disappointment sinks in with each abundantly colorful photo shoot.
That half-simmered stew comparison best describes The Neon Demon; remarkable in dissection, but vibrantly messy – and astonishing flat – as a whole. Violet lights saturate flashy underground nightclubs, while a naked woman stands in the center of a pulsing red dance floor, strobing to the beat of Martinez’s pure-sex orchestration. Blank, white canvases turn to pitch-black pools of debauchery, backlighting Jesse’s vicious turn into someone who gets off on knowing men want to bed her, and women want to be her. This – in Refn’s twisted way – marries with so many setups meant to chip away at Jesse’s innocence, yet it’s all still stunted by an utter lack of character.
The color red – used to convey the slow corruption of Fanning’s little-miss-sweetheart – pierces like a demon’s gaze, while whites and blues signify a purity that’s slowly, destructively being snuffed out. Sound familiar? It’s the same filtering Refn uses to display Gosling’s aggression in Only God Forgives.
By now we’ve grown accustom to Refn’s dashing visceral brilliance over the years, but he’s never produced a story this lacking. This voiceless. Oh, the world of models is sick, abusive, and perverse? You don’t say! It’s like Refn is grasping for this bigger, monumental meaning, yet only musters the most shallow, surface-value perfume commercial imaginable. Refn has always pushed the boundaries of minimalist storytelling, but The Neon Demon is his thinnest attempt yet – something that style just can’t make up for.
It’s telling that I’m some 900 words into this review (thanks for sticking with me!) and I’ve barely mentioned performances – because there’s truly nothing noteworthy. Elle Fanning is a fantastic actress, but her character’s strange personality imbalance undercuts what could have been an almost possession-like character flip. She goes from goodie-goodie to man-eater in mere seconds, and without any natural evolution.
Everyone here (Heathcote, Malone, Lee, Fanning) acts exactly how we’d imagine bitchy, narcissistic models might act in an industry satire, except Refn shoots far too straight for comfort. Nothing matches. Sure, Keanu Reeves turns in a broodily goofy genre role, and Alessandro Nivola finds charisma even though his asinine character is torn from the most obvious assumptions – but no actor shocks or awes.
There’s one scene that sums up The Neon Demon perfectly, when Keanu Reeves’ character busts down the door to Fanning’s apartment. Stricken by fear, Fanning grabbed Reeves because she saw someone – or something – in her room. Reeves scoffs, but goes to play hero (with his helper, Mikey). The door won’t budge, so Reeves kicks it in to find a mountain lion (or other big cat) bouncing about the room. Yes, you know – those pesky Los Angeles mountain lions who come in your motel room when the sliding door is left open. In that moment, you’re intrigued by situation only (cats are mythologically feminine and Refn references this symbol throughout), taken aback by a f*$king animal that shouldn’t belong – but once the scene ends, the moment passes and it’s never referenced again. A scene stuck in time, with no connective meaning or purpose (considering a larger scale view).
The Neon Demon feels like Refn is at his most self-masturbatory, stroking an idea that’s far more interesting than the product produced. There’s confidence, but also a tremendously lax “meaning” that’s more outdated than revolutionary. Considering the all-in finale that the director slowly builds to, this is a movie that we should be discussing with much more passion – not tepid confusion, and an unfortunate feeling of “why” – not “what” – just happened.
It's a shame that a film so beautiful says so little, even by Nicolas Winding Refn's standards.