THE NEON DEMON: VISIONARY VAPIDITY?
I have to come clean right from the start here and say that I ADORE many films directed by Nicolas Winding Refn—from the Pusher trilogy to Bronson, through Valhalla Rising and Drive. He is very talented in my book, and has been interesting to follow as his style gets more and more surreal. His 2013 Lynchian crime freak out, ONLY GOD FORGIVES, was the first thing I’d seen by him that didn’t feel like a knock out.
When I heard he was making a straight-on horror film next, my little ears perked up and I started panting. This is a dude who named THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE as his all-time favorite film, for crying out loud!
Well, that movie came out and I done watched it. It’s called THE NEON DEMON, and stars Elle Fanning as a young woman who arrives in Los Angeles on a bus and takes the modeling world by storm. Her rise and rise and rise and fall are told in a hypnotic style full of slick visuals and odd behavior.
While becoming the Next Big Thing, Jesse is befriended/be-enemied by a trio of veterans (one of them is—gasp—24!): Ruby (Jena Malone), Gigi (Bella Heathcote), and Sarah (Abbey Lee). Gigi and Sarah used to be big news, but are on the descent, and Ruby is a makeup artist who simultaneously wants to shield Jesse from the horrors of the business and possess her in the process. Bad things happen…
First, the good:
Elle Fanning is pretty damn amazing here, playing a human cipher of a young woman who truly believes she possesses beauty that can get her anything she desires. Fanning is in almost every scene of this thing, and is never short of mesmerizing.
I’d say the movie really belongs to Jena Malone, though, as Ruby is the most completely rounded human on display. Her commitment to this character is pretty amazing, including a severely disturbing scene in a funeral home, and she delivers. It also has Keanu Reeves as Hank, the sleaziest effing motel manager of all time. He’s great as a super creep, proving once again that whenever he gets to show a darker side as an actor, he knocks it out of the park.
The film is both beautiful to look at and to listen to. Hypnotic is the word I keep coming back to. Every surface is either shimmering or dead black, bright colors filling the screen throughout. There is a scene toward the middle meant to show Jesse’s rise to the top, which is told in the most bizarre, symbolic way. That part, alone, makes the movie worth seeing, as I can’t think of any mainstream films willing to do something that odd.
When things get ugly, they get REALLY UGLY, really fast.
It doesn’t really say much that hasn’t been said before in lots of other films. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, but when the whole production is so hyper-real and psychedelic at the same time, I was really expecting the “punchline” to be a lot more powerful. Sure, it gets MIGHTY dark in the last stretch, but it feels more like they didn’t quite know how to end things, more than a satisfying conclusion.
I honestly can’t make up my mind if the vapid, bright surface quality of just about every character, setting, and line of dialog, is supposed to be a COMMENT on vapidity, or if it just is failed artsiness. The fact that I can’t decide makes me lean toward the first option, but the lack of sufficient resolution takes away from that effect.
In moments, I loved this thing—there are some innovative choices and images sprinkled throughout. As a whole, though, it feels like a flash of light with no lingering after image. That’s a problem inside the horror genre, where there needs to be some sense of empathy with the characters, some kind of humanity in place so that the horrors have weight. Here, all is weightless, so even the most awful moment that would feel like a gut punch in a different movie, just kind of fizzles away…
I’m not mad I watched THE NEON DEMON, but I’m also not super happy about it…
MY RATING: SHALLOW TRYING TO BE DEEP