Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cast: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Karl Glusman, Desmond Harrington, Alessandro Nivola with Christina Hendricks and Keanu Reeves
Plot: A naïve model (Fanning) makes a splash on the LA modelling scene, inspiring jealously from her rivals.
Nicolas Winding Refn is the kind of film-maker that is usually met with a torrent of frustration. With Drive, he made the perfect movie, a Neo-Noir pulsating with arthouse cinematography and roaring with emotion. Sadly, he followed that up with Only God Forgives, the most marmite film at Cannes that year, taking an action movie plot and bogging it down with overtly artsy pacing and strange asides. With The Neon Demon, we are unsure what to expect.
The plot is the kind of narrative that lends itself to Refn’s film-making. The world of modelling is one that has been the fascination of story-tellers for decades now, especially in the more arthouse genres. There is something about the beauty of it all, but with very little under the surface. Models are revered as icons, yet they are treated like toys. There are moments in the Neon Demon which suggest that Refn was attracted to the project, due to a few elaborate set-ups. Certain frames are typical Refn, perhaps some of his best work. As Desmond Harrington’s photographer walks model Fanning to a white backdrop, the two figures become the only source of colour on the entire cinema screen. It is a simple trick, yet one that makes you pause to think. An early club scene sees Fanning with her new model friends watching a performance in a nightclub. As the red strobe lights reduce the characters to brief, flickering faces, their emotions are the only thing the audience is taking in. And then there is one scene where Elle Fanning is on a cat walk that simply descends into weird. It is all very Refn; it is very rare these days to find a director who doesn’t feel inspired by another creator, but Refn definitely feels like a force of his own nature. The downside to this style is that, outside of these impressive shots, there is little to fill the gaps. Refn’s dialogue scenes are full of pauses, have little to no soundscape and often avoid exposition, rather than giving it. There are several asides that, might bring entertainment to the picture, but don’t really add to the plot overall. Take Keanu Reeves as the creepy motel owner, who gets one of the most terrifying shots in the entire movie (at least in the first two thirds of the picture), but didn’t actually add to the debate about the modelling industry. He is just one more thing for Elle Fanning to get past. The Neon Demon is a film that doesn’t quite ever find its feet, although Refn almost saves it at the end. There is a neat twist, where the entire film is flipped on its head. In arthouse movies like The Neon Demon, anything goes, making it hard for audiences to be shocked. However, Refn is a master at this kind of film, tearing a hole in his own movie and hitting us a terrifying punch. He gets the visuals he craves for this kind of film; the audience gets the story twist they were seeking. Even then, nothing is quite as tied up as you want it to be. The twist needs more explanation, winning the shocks but not quite landing the characterisation. But Refn has never really been a character director. The actors here are great (Malone has bite, Harrington is stoically creepy and Abbey Lee has moments of glorious ferocity), but they don’t quite get enough to do. They are portraits for Refn, not people for an audience to explore. It means that The Neon Demon delights, but there’s nothing lasting here. Typical Refn then.
Final Verdict: I want to like the Neon Demon, but Refn’s visuals over substance style means that outside of a few great moments, this is a patience-testing load of nothing.