Film Review – The Neon Demon

The Neon Demon

The Neon Demon

When a teenage girl comes to Hollywood to become a model she finds herself immersed in a world of fetishistic obsession and narcissistic pathos. A lot of what’s at heart in such a minor plot description is that it most certainly comes off as something that’s been done before. Love him or hate him, or something in between, writer and director Nicolas Winding Refn is definitely an auteur in that direct sort of way. He’s often stated in interviews and director’s commentaries that he’s a fetishist and that he makes fetish movies. So it’s not surprising then that this latest movie, The Neon Demon, might be his most fetishistic endeavor to date.

Accentuated with hypnotically hyper-stylized images that fall between Cliff Martinez’s techno-thumping electro score and pulsating strobe lights, the movie immediately seeks to ensnare its audience in a hypno-trance; and it seems to want to accomplish very little after that. Which more or less gives the audience the choice to come along for a very specific ride and enjoy it, or be tussled around, fighting every inch to break free. The movie tells the story of Jesse (Elle Fanning) as the young would-be model who seems to be a shoe-in for greatness, as everyone constantly tells her, and the people she must contend with, from a boy who wants to befriend her named Dean (Karl Glusman), to Ruby (Jena Malone), a make-up artist that takes a special interest in her to her scene stealing landlord Hank (Keanu Reeves).

Neon Demon Movie Still 1

A cadre of bizarre characters like this seem plucked right out of a David Lynch movie. And that’s basically where the movie both succeeds and fails by its own accord. If one thing can be unequivocally stated about this movie and its creator is that it’s so full of egotism and narcissistic pretention that it has a hard time not basically eating its own ass. Refn even goes to the extent of monograming his initials into the title sequence of the movie, and then again at the end. Make no mistake about the nature of what’s being watched here though and all the pretention and heavy-handed subtext will flicker away, allowing for a seriously entertaining exercise in a purely visually and aurally stimulating experience.

Neon Demon Movie Still 2

But, Refn really has a desire to be David Lynch. His characters speak with weird and uncomfortable silences between lines and spout things so on the nose that you get the sense you’re supposed to laugh at it all. Unfortunately, Refn isn’t Lynch and some of these things don’t fire off like they maybe should. Sure, there’s a message here about the way society views the image of women and the way women view themselves, but it’s mired in overstated pieces of dialog that the message almost becomes bogged down by the desire to make sure the audience gets it. Which means long drawn out talking sequences that feel immediately out of place in a movie by a person who typically tries to put in as little verbal information as possible, partially because the characters are directly stating everything the visuals are already telling us.

While this all sounds like a rather dismal experience the beauty is that Refn crafts some of the best visuals that none of that really matters. Not every movie is made to be a narrative device and this one, while stringing together something more coherent than Refn’s last outing, the unfairly maligned Only God Forgives, is certainly not aiming to wow you with a mystery or a triumphant character arc, what it does want to do is entrance you in its web of deviancy and make you want to stay there and just hangout. And when it’s this intoxicating, subtly disturbing and surprisingly funny, it’s not hard to yes.


Benjamin Nason is a writer, film-maker and critic from the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his cat Lulu.

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