Normally when I walk out of a movie theater, there’s a feeling of serenity that comes over me. I’ve just spent a couple hours doing my favorite thing in the world after all. Sometimes I’m elated or angry when something truly great or awful strikes but those days grow fewer as I see more films. However, upon leaving The Neon Demon I felt something I hadn’t in a long time. Genuine disgust, almost as if I had spent the last two hours at a dog fight. Anybody can make a bad film, and at the end of the day, there isn’t much wrong with that. However, it takes somebody of true talent, who is so arrogant and unfiltered that he cannot channel it to make something like this. Enter Nicolas Winding Refn.
The Neon Demon centers on Jesse (Elle Fanning), a sixteen-year-old model who has run away to Los Angeles to pursue her dream. By the grace of her stunning natural beauty, she finds herself quickly swept into the seedy underbelly of the industry. In fact, the only people worth trusting seem to be Jesse’s makeup artist Ruby (Jenna Malone) and semi-boyfriend Dean (Karl Glusman). However, as Jesse dives deeper and deeper into the fascination with her beauty, even those elements of her life become more blurry.
What is so frustrating about Refn is that he is clearly an extraordinarily talented filmmaker. Drive and Bronson were wildly stylish and audacious films that flipped reality on its head while still remaining entertaining. In many ways, that same style persists in The Neon Demon. The film is filled to the brim with gorgeous visuals that capture the seedy lifestyles that these women live. Everything has an intentionally artificial look to it. Sharp blacks and whites punctuate what often times looks like the cover of a magazine. On the surface, it is often a haunting and beautiful looking film. However, these visuals end up being the invisible cloak for a very naked emperor.
Refn certainly believes that he has a lot to say about the modern perception of beauty. For a while, he may even fool us into biting. There’s certainly a coherent story running through the majority of this film, which is far more than can be said for his previous disaster, Only God Forgives. It’s false coherence, though, holding our hand only to drop us off of a cliff. There are long sequences here that feel like rejected concepts for Marina and the Diamonds music videos that are crow-barred into the story simply to anchor a non-existent point. Refn is so confident in these vague visuals, that they simply serve to confuse and undercut the moments of strong visual storytelling. Then in the third act, he reveals himself for who he truly is, a pornographer. Any semblance of substance this mess was achieving fly straight out of the window, as Refn assaults us with one horrific shock scene after another. It feels random as if these sequences were just thrown in to give audiences something to talk about walking out of the film since they certainly won’t know what has happened in it.
The biggest casualty of all this nonsense is the cast, who while game for it all, come in very flat. Refn intentionally gets somewhat stilted performances out of his actors, which in certain circumstances serves him well. However, in a film that is supposed to be all about stylistic appearances and over the top personas, the performances should have reflected that. Fanning, in particular, had true breakout potential here, as on paper Jesse has a rather interesting transformation. However, despite going from timid school girl to the incarnation of natural beauty, Fanning keeps her performance in neutral. There’s a great deal of visual heavy lifting to bring these changes across, but something more is needed out of Fanning to make it stick. She lacks the off-kilter charm that Refn brought to Charlie Bronson or The Driver. Meanwhile, Jenna Malone is at the epicenter of some of the film’s biggest missteps. She bravely leans into them, no doubt, but her character quickly bleeds into something unintelligible by the film’s end. In fact, many of the film’s supporting characters feel incoherent and interchangeable. The only one who really stands out is Keanu Reeves as a seedy hotel manager, and that is only because his line delivery is even more stilted than everybody else.
There will undoubtedly be some who hail The Neon Demon as a masterpiece. These kinds of films attract that attention by nature, as there are so few audacious films of any kind given wide exposure these days. However, audaciousness does not excuse incoherence, and so much of this film feels like it was made so only another species could understand it. I truly believe that Refn will one day make another great film. That day will come when he finally tries to meet us halfway, giving us a solid story that is artfully told. This, however, is simply an art installation, and those belong in museums, not theaters.