It’s always a moment of excitement/horror when I notice a new Nicolas Winding Refn film is playing nearby.
I embraced his work on Bronson, a hyperkinetic, rage fueled, Clockwork Orange inspired weird-fest. I think Drive is one of the most overrated films of the past ten years and I often half-jokingly describe Only God Forgives as “the best comedy of 2013!”.
It’s not that I don’t like Refn.
I’ve read he’s actually an interesting and even insightful director. He has a clear visual vision that never ceases to be entertaining and involving…it’s when we get to the nitty-gritty details that his work begins to blur.
The Neon Demon, in it’s simplest form, is about a 16 year old girl named Jesse (Elle Fanning), who moves to Los Angeles with hopes of becoming a model.
Along the way she meets the usual types of creeps, perverts and narcissists we typically relate to the dark side of the modeling industry.
She sort of befriends a make up artist named Ruby (Jena Malone), has a short lived fling with an amateur photographer named Dean (Karl Glusman), and just sort of learns the fact I figured everyone already knew about modeling…It’s a dog eat dog world, which is a whole type of irony in itself the movie can’t help but hit upon rather bluntly.
Through a vignette-esque style, we watch Jesse’s trip into the monstrous world of fashion.
A trip that might have yielded more frightening results if we had any kind of attachment to Jesse.
She’s not given much of a background, but enough to make the “mysterious outsider” angle a little trite. We are reminded again and again through wooden dialogue how Jesse has “it”, though what “it” is seems constantly open to interpretation.
It might be easier to buy this if the film did a stronger job of making Jesse the “it” girl it thinks she is instead of the doe-eyed babe in the woods we have in front of us.
For some reason, every man and a lot of the women are instantly drawn to her.
Why? Is it her youth? As Keanu Reeves sleazy motel owner states, “She’s a hard, hard piece of candy”. Refn may have a sure eye with visuals, but he’s basically tone deaf when it comes to dialogue.
On the other hand, maybe part of the point is that we never understand what makes Jesse the “it” girl.
I could have forgiven some of these aspects of The Neon Demon though if the film had a more interesting and less self-conflicting message.
It always feels at odds with itself.
The vignette style might have worked had it fully committed, yet it’s perverse insistence on having an accessible plot line within that framework tends to stumble at every turn.
We see Jesse arrive, quickly rise as a star, and snap out of reality within the first hour or so. Then we get to watch the increasing use of blood, sex and mania.
Something that might have worked better if the first half had set up a better control station.
You also have a muddled message about it’s very subject, the fashion industry.
Too often it wants to simultaneously condemn and utilize to it’s own ends. It hates a lot of what the industry seemingly stands for, yet it also want’s to use that tantalizing sexuality for it’s own purposes.
We are constantly smashed over the head with the sledgehammer morality and mentality that our society takes toward physical beauty, specifically when it comes to women.
I’m not sure if this was meant to be some major revelation, it always seemed like a general consensus from the outside looking in that the modeling/fashion industries have had rampant issues. And while Refn isn’t exactly wrong in his examination, he’s also not introducing anything new or exciting.
The final aspect that edged into my mind during the screening was how tame the content all wound up feeling.
The way people have been hyping this film up, you’d think this film was pushing violent/sexual boundaries to the extreme.
This is far from the case.
Perhaps for a borderline mainstream film it can be edgy at times, and Refn certainly does what he can to ramp up the discomfort.
Rape, cannibalism, partial-necrophilia (depending on your definition), and the insinuated rape and murder of a 13 year old girl. Shocking to certain audiences? Of course.
But to what end is Refn attempting to use these atrocities? It’s never quite clear, and without some context or reverberating effect these moments don’t actually stick.
They simply provide a moments gasp followed by the occasional giggle.
At times I wished the movie had no dialogue at all, something I also said about Ryan Gosling’s hyper visual and hollow directorial debut, Lost River.
I want Refn to go headlong into style and create something of pure visual bliss, sans dialogue.
However, he still seems tethered by a tendency to try and make his films partially accessible and partially baffling. A combination that wound up dragging me to near nap levels of disinterest.
But at the end of the day, it’s the sort of movie people will shout “YOU JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND!”, which might be true, but I doubt it.
Even Refn said something to the effect of, “Some will find this film endlessly dissectible, other’s will find it totally hollow, and they’d both be right.”
My simplest take is this, I like what The Neon Demon is trying for, more than what it actually accomplishes, and if you have enjoyed Refn up to this point, then skip my opinion and see it for yourself.
I’m still giving him the benefit of the doubt, and I’ll wait here quietly for the great film I know he’s capable of creating. The Neon Demon is not it, and of all the things I thought it might be, boring wasn’t one of them.
★★ Fans of Refn will probably enjoy it, the rest of us will be left rolling our eyes, laughing, scratching our heads or sleeping. All of which happened to me.
images via Broad Green Pictures