Forethought has never been a good friend to some of my opinions on certain movies after a first impression and when I wish to talk about my thoughts on The Neon Demon, it probably is only fitting I admit that I have a particularly conflicted relationship with the films of Nicolas Winding Refn. I’ve fallen head over heels for Drive with the fact it turns its own visual style into a new form of storytelling and while I’ve liked many of his other works, something about his work felt missing and it was evident from a path he took starting with Only God Forgives and now The Neon Demon. Both films have understandably polarized audiences, but Refn purists got what they wanted and then some. For every intriguing moment that The Neon Demon presents also comes a fairly self-indulgent one that drives upon his own influences – among many of his tendencies that always struck me.
In some sense The Neon Demon works out almost like Nicolas Winding Refn’s own take on Dario Argento’s masterpiece Suspiria: another film whose strongest point is its visual storytelling. Set within the world of the fashion industry we are told the story of the rise and eventual fall of the aspiring Jesse as played by Elle Fanning, as her own beauty catches the eye of her peers and she enters a whole new world full of jealousy and deceit. With The Neon Demon comes another characteristic to Refn’s filmmaking that had already been made clear from Drive, the obvious influences from narrative structure as created by past films for after carrying Le Samouraï and The Driver by the bones he now creates his own version of Argento by way of another influence, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
The Neon Demon oozes of self-indulgence from the manner to which it was directed or the way the dialogue was written, but the case it presents is nevertheless a fascinating one to observe. If anything had been clear from how he directs The Neon Demon, it would be from the fact that his influence has been made clear from his narrative experimentation. In some sense this indulgence actually finds itself aiding what The Neon Demon is aiming for as a commentary on artificiality because Refn has made clear from the way he tells The Neon Demon that it’s a work that allows said aspect to shine so openly, if just at a rate where it ends up losing subtlety. It’s a fairly obvious metaphor which The Neon Demon is presenting, but the alluring visual storytelling makes for a hypnotizing watch just as it has always done for Nicolas Winding Refn when he’s at the peak of his own efforts.
Also hypnotizing are the many actresses that Refn places at the very center of The Neon Demon, in particular I would like to single out Elle Fanning and Jena Malone as the ones that had caught me the most. For as much as the leading actresses can strike Refn’s audiences as beautiful they still find themselves comfortable as they weave through the artificiality as the film’s own commentary is making clear: the modeling industry is all about trying to look beautiful without ever really feeling it. Keanu Reeves’s performance was another that caught me out of the blue, for it wasn’t a role I expected of him although his impact was an astounding one. Every performance feels consumed by the visual approach, but there’s a great comfort that Nicolas Winding Refn is taking by allowing his performers to take themselves into the dreamlike environment he creates on his own behalf, only to serve as a reflection between reality and perception.
In order to address the lack of subtlety I had mentioned in a preceding paragraph, it doesn’t help that The Neon Demon isn’t saying anything particularly refreshing or new about the industry it is depicting. Sure, amidst all the visual beauty and copious tension laced throughout, there’s not so much to dig into past the surface. If there was a particular reason I never considered forethought to be a good friend of mine, it would be from how I was already struggling after a first watch where I thought I absolutely loved The Neon Demon to think of something it said that hasn’t been done before. Refn’s most dedicated fans probably might shout a “you don’t get it!” towards me, but this lack of subtlety within the occasionally tone-deaf atmosphere he creates from his own writing (considering the fact he wrote the screenplay, it’s not surprising to me in the slightest) only made his metaphors far too blunt for their own good and it was merely surface level rather than actually challenging. By the time the film had reached its end, a messy metaphor is what had been left behind – for all that had come prior just came at a rate it was making too obvious what Refn aimed for.
Amidst all the most divided reactions that The Neon Demon will incite can range from great boredom or a shower of praise. Yet among many things that The Neon Demon carries that still struck me on another viewing, it’s all within Refn’s knack for visual beauty and the hypnotizing score. The Neon Demon makes clear how artificial its environment is, while it provides something wonderful in its exercises of tension that almost channel Dario Argento’s greatest moments within his giallo films, but at the same time there’s a level to which it feels it reaches out too much for its own good. Refn’s films have always been about turning style into substance and like the equally divisive Only God Forgives (which I am a defender for), it’s effective on his own end. I only wish that there would be much more to dig into beyond the surface level, because a running thought that comes to my head even with my enjoyment of Refn’s filmography is one that signifies how I just want to come back to the works that have clearly influenced him. I can safely say I liked it enough.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Broad Green Pictures.
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Screenplay by Nicolas Winding Refn
Produced by Lene Børglum, Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Desmond Harrington, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves
Release Year: 2016
Running Time: 117 minutes