Nicolas Winding Refn takes us inside The Neon Demon on visit to the set and reveals that even he doesn't know exactly how the film is going to end.

The Neon Demon Review

The Neon Demon ReviewRating:

4 out of 10


Elle Fanning as Jesse

Karl Glusman as Dean

Jena Malone as Ruby

Bella Heathcote as Gigi

Abbey Lee as Sarah

Christina Hendricks as Roberta Hoffman

Keanu Reeves as Hank

Desmond Harrington as Jack

Alessandro Nivola as Fashion Designer

Charles Baker as Mikey

Jamie Clayton as Casting Director

Chris Muto as Nick

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

The Neon Demon Review:

The Neon Demon isn’t shallow the way the fashion industry is so much as the way a slowly-draining pool or a beach edge at high tide is. You don’t have to go looking for its point or trying to figure out what it’s saying, you have to avoid tripping over it and breaking your neck at every turn. In addressing the dangers of living a life focused entirely on the surface, Nicolas Winding Refn makes many of the same mistakes, delivering an exquisite and often disconcerting sensory experience about banal Los Angeles models. It’s as if Beyond the Valley of the Dolls were directed by Dario Argento. It may be an unavoidable consequence of making a film about the allure of surface beauty, but that doesn’t make the result any less dull.

There’s no law which says a shallow film can’t be an unentertaining one, but the lack of reflection which produces such films makes it a rare occurrence. It could be that writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) believes his film is more introspective than it appears, or he could think this is the most entertaining version of pointless, pretty spectacle. There is no denying Refn makes exquisite pictures and Demon is certainly that; as art directed and composed as any fashion magazine spread it is startling to look at. Refn certainly knows it as he and cinematographer Natasha Braier settle on shots and linger and linger and linger as if hypnotized by their own images and nearly almost mesmerizing us, too. Almost. The droning, frequently-disturbing sound design from Anne Jensen won’t quite let that level of zen settle in; it always wants to remind that the life of small-town-girl turned big-time-model Jesse (Fanning) isn’t a fantasy but a nightmare. Refn is not at all afraid to put his thumb on the scale and tell you what his film is about, which would be bad enough if what it was about wasn’t so blindingly obvious. “A life entirely built around external beauty will make someone very shallow and weird.” In other news, lava is warm and water is wet.

The few times it gets away from beauty and stares ugliness in the face, Refn shows there is an interesting film that lies just underneath, but no one is willing to pry it loose. A film entirely built around the rundown motel owned by Keanu Reeves (who may just give the best performance of his entire career here) and the strange, sad people who wander through it would be so much better than anything else Demon has to offer. It’s the only time Demon comes alive or offers any ability to surprise, largely through Reeves’ presence, though he appears sparingly. Refn offers up a sense of the Jesse types who’ve come to Los Angeles for the same reason but lack the strange magnetism, which slowly pushes her to the top of the modeling world. It’s a better argument for the soul-crushing reality of being judged entirely on looks than anything else in the film, but it ends up being more of a spice than anything pertinent. Perhaps because as strange as the motel is, it’s also (very intentionally) the most real place in the film, grungy and decadent as opposed to the stark beauty of the fashion world. But The Neon Demon is entirely a sensory experience and areas of realism detract from that, so out they must go as quickly as Jesse’s naïve boyfriend.

There are pleasures in a beautiful film just from its beauty, but that requires restraint and Refn is many things as a director but restrained has not been one of them. If it were silent through and through, if Refn were willing to just leave everything up to the viewer, that might be enough; the audience could attempt to follow that on their own. Except then characters speak and when they speak they say incredibly inane things like ‘beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.’ There is nothing at all surprising in The Neon Demon, and this about a movie which includes a woman throwing up an eyeball and another woman eating it. Outside of Reeves and Jenna Malone’s lonely make-up artist, most of the cast is not up to adding enough extra spin to such lines to make them sound anything other than inane. Most of Fanning’s performance is down to wide-eyed innocence, while her fellow models are forced to freeze like mannequins whenever the camera lands on them. They’re less people than props for Refn’s lens, and it shows.

It’s so overpowering, even when Refn finally dives down the rabbit hole of weirdness he spends most of the film teasing, the result is dull. As Jesse pushes more and more of the outside world away and chooses success in beauty as her life, the weirdness factor of the world she lives in increases until models are literally cutting up and devouring one another in a Madame Báthory style grand guignol. He certainly has a strong idea for the story he wants to tell, but his visual sense proves stronger and ultimately wrests control away. The fact that there is probably a good movie inside The Neon Demon isn’t a saving grace, it’s a final sentence as it shows just how badly Refn let his film get away from him.


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