Hot Take: Ummmmmm… Twisted?
Admittedly, I’m not familiar with director Nicholas Winding Refn’s earlier works. The Neon Demon was my first foray into his world of art. It’s fair to call it art. One thing The Neon Demon isn’t is a straightforward movie with a cut and dried plot. This is one for the film school crowd. If it were 1996, my Film History & Appreciation class would have had a field day with this one.
The Neon Demon follows Jesse (Elle Fanning), a new arrival to Los Angeles, who is there to make it as a model. The aspiring beauty catches everyone’s eye and also the ire of her competition as she enters the world of fashion. She has no real talent and she knows it. Her only value is her beauty but it’s very valuable and she knows that, too.
The painstaking pace of the film builds tension. However, we’re fairly uncertain to what as we’re kept mostly in the dark. Something wicked this way comes for Jesse but we’re not sure what. Jesse has an admirer named Dean (Karl Glusman) who thinks she’s something special and doesn’t seem to be turned away by the fact that she just turned 16. Hank (Keanu Reeves) is the manager of the seedy motel where Jesse is staying and doesn’t care for her too much after an early run-in where Jesse’s room gets wrecked by an unexpected guest. Ruby (Jena Malone) meets Jesse early on and wants to take her under her wing. She introduces Jesse to some not-so-friendly models (Abbey Lee & Bella Heathcote) who are visibly irritated by Jesse’s captivating presence.
The film progresses at a deliberately slow pace. There are shots that last for minutes that could be done in seconds or not at all. Since we’re in the “spoiler free” zone, it’s tough to get into details but Refn has his reasons. Everything builds to a bizarre third act where the danger is revealed. The last 30-40 minutes will leave quite a mental mark and might supply the most bizarre movie moment of 2016. Actually, it might even produce the top 2.
The Neon Demon is an enigma. The acting isn’t good or bad. It’s non-existent. This must be on purpose because everything else that occurs in the film is so deliberate. It all feels so pointless but then you wonder if that’s what the point is. The high gloss images and stunning visuals can’t hide the shallow, ugliness of the world it portrays but, again, maybe that’s the point. One thing is for certain though. It doesn’t matter whether you loved or hated The Neon Demon, you’re probably right.
“Spoiler Free” Pros
- Visually and Aurally Alluring
Give director Refn credit for knowing how to set a mood. With assists from cinematographer Natasha Braier and composer Cliff Martinez, Refn’s unusual vision comes to life, for better or worse, in highly watchable fashion. The aesthetics of the film outshine the content. Then again, beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing. At least that’s what The Neon Demon would have you believe.
- Shock Value
When you realize where The Neon Demon is going, you expect it to veer at the last second and go somewhere else. Refn chews on these scenes even longer than others to give you every opportunity to talk yourself into something else happening or look away or, hell, leave… but you probably won’t. And then it goes there. Good luck getting rid of those memories.
- Keanu Reeves
He’s at his scummiest in this role and is spot on.
“Spoiler Free” Cons
- This One Might Be Trying Too Hard
The Neon Demon would definitely be nominated for Art House Porn of the Year if such a category existed. This is more damning than praising as it appeals to a certain audience while alienating the vast majority of viewers who want something that doesn’t require a conversation twice as long as the movie to come to a conclusion about the film’s validity.
- And It Never Really Comes Together
While it does everything it can to get there in the end, there are way too many loose ends left to be tied to have The Neon Demon escape its own incoherence.