Movie Review – The Neon Demon

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OFFICIAL SILVER SCREENER REVIEW

– THE NEON DEMON –

IMDB Rating: 6.3 out of 10 (40,291 votes)

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

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The poster for The Neon Demon.

As one rather astute critic noted, “[I am] beginning to believe Nicolas Winding Refn made Drive by accident.”The Neon Demon is, on a fundamental level, simply not the work of the same filmmaker who crafted that brilliant nightlight-soaked thrill ride back in 2011. Our director for this 117-minute jaw-dropper of a cinematic experience, the self-proclaimed Danish “pornographer” Nicolas Winding Refn, once demonstrated quite the aptitude for making films with that oft-discussed perfect balance of style and substance. Five years later and he has morphed into something entirely different.

Having just finished The Neon Demon, and having never seen much like it before, I am at a total loss for words. Most of that sentiment is a result of this film’s final half-hour, an utterly thrilling metaphoric journey through numerous disturbing, yet equally crowd-pleasing (I say that sarcastically), thematic concerns. If there’s one thing to be said about this film, it is that it holds absolutely zero stake in what you, the viewer, thinks of it on any moralistic level, for if it did, I highly doubt it would’ve traversed the terrain that it did.

However, there is indeed a part of me that is also befuddled due to sheer lack of ability to come to terms with how this film came to take the form that it did. It is so incredibly all over the place in almost every sense. What I mean by that is that the film has an uncanny ability to be both incredibly impressive and laughably poor in a number of production areas – the only thing separating good from bad is where a scene may find itself within the film. At times, one can hardly believe that it’s the same film.

Lets take, for example, the film’s opening. In the film’s initial stages the cinematic quality takes a nosedive. The screenplay here is not good: some of the lines genuinely remind me of a conversation that a 16-year-old wannabe screenwriter might churn out – clunky and amateurish. Only God Forgives was similarly prone to cheap attempts at making entirely non-important dialogue sound much more important and meaningful than it actually was. Although less commonly found, that trend continues with The Neon Demon. Similar in terms of visuals: the first few visual metaphors that Refn introduces are so obvious that they verge on downright lame. Yet as the film progresses, cheap and unprofessional production values are traded in for filmic craftsmanship of the highest order. The lighting shifts from gimmicky self-importance to stunning beauty and immense metaphoric importance. The depth of the world created becomes more meaningful and more fleshed out. Dialogue is reduced altogether – probably a good idea given the propensity for cringe. How can one film seem at once so amateurish and then so jaw-droppingly professional and well-made?

This is probably where it’s most appropriate to mention Cliff Martinez. Rare is it to find a pairing of artists in such opposing mediums who have such a formidable symbiosis. Martinez holds together the hodgepodge of scenes Refn offers him in such a beautiful way. Not only is the soundtrack simply perfect for the mood of the film, and not only is it just different enough from the Only God Forgives soundtrack that I’m willing to give it a pass, but what it achieves on a continuity level is nothing short of remarkable. The soft transitions from scene to scene, the buildups, the musical motifs which re-occur at such poignant moments. Listening to this film’s soundtrack is, quite simply, listening to a master at work.

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The screenplay is definitely worth discussing. Although I doubt there would be much of it, given the amount of smouldering and slow camera movement through silent neon-soaked interiors on offer here, where the film does bring to light its screenplay is where the film is, for all intents and purposes, at its least remarkable. The opening few scenes – particularly one in a makeup room featuring Elle Fanning’s Jesse and Jena Malone’s Ruby, and then in a female restroom featuring the four main female characters of the film – are written in such a clunky, unconvincing manner that it could quite easily take someone out of the film altogether. I am perhaps fortunate that my morbid curiosity – a choice of words which I currently find all too poignant – pushed me to continue the film, for if it hadn’t, those two scenes alone, in which we’re introduced to two cut-throat models, Sarah and Gigi, who are played just as unconvincingly as they are written, may have cut my time with The Neon Demon short. You need to draw your audience in from the moment the opening frames roll – that, my friends, is screenwriting 101.

The entire first third of the film, however, generally suffers from the same fate. It is not convincing, for the most part. Refn works in a variety of metaphors, mostly lame and unsubstantiated, and seemingly feels the need to repeat them over and over again. Yes, Nic, we understand that it’s a cutthroat business, and yes, we understand that it’s incredibly competitive and that girls will do anything to get work. We also understand that Jesse is entering into this world and will be a changed person when she comes out the other side – did we really need the numerous tracking shots of her entering one room and coming out another, or of her walking towards the vaguely-religious and even-more-vaguely-sexual neon-triangle of temptation?

Refn has also made a clear effort to portray the models themselves as empty shells, plastic versions of a real living person. One scene in particular, where there are a handful of girls sitting in chairs as they wait for their names to be called up, is so painfully obvious in its metaphoric exploration that it had me pulling strands of hair out. Does this explain the largely-bland performances from almost everyone across the board, save Jena Malone as Ruby, Keanu Reeves as Hank (who is the best in the film) and a brief appearance from Christina Hendricks? Perhaps it does, although in my eyes it is not enough to excuse them.

There is a case to be made, although my job is not to make it but rather to point it out as a possible conclusion to be drawn, that Refn is now nothing more than a self-indulgent shell of his former self. The signs were there with Only God Forgives – the fetishisation of almost any and all kind of violence, no matter how gruesome or obscure. Of course, Refn did famously say in a live-TV interview that “violence is like f***ing – it’s all about the buildup”, which says pretty much everything you need to know about his last three films. Yet there’s a feeling of this sentiment coming full-circle in The Neon Demon, where sex is explored in ways other than by means of violence. It is most certainly not a clean film, and there is violence to be found, but the real challenge the film poses is making you imagine the violence rather than putting it to us at face value. That is indeed quite a remarkable feat.

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But most of this ends up being hollow bar the film’s final third, where the thematic concerns of The Neon Demon are wrapped up completely. Other than that, it can often feel like, yet again, Refn is prioritising style over substance in the most unforgivable, unflinching manner. While I don’t believe that Refn has any obligation to his viewer to show them something which they have to enjoy sitting through – it has been done throughout film’s history to great effect – his attempt here is too hollow for the extremity of his attempt to really hit home. Most of it truly is a visual extravaganza, but when the thematic discussion seems, as it does to me, simply a way for Refn to justify his own self-indulgent visual directorial style, a lot of the film loses its punch.

However there are flashes of brilliance which keep you hanging on long enough. The tiny details which say so much, all of which Refn nailed with Drive, are evident in this film too: for example, how, whilst going to inspect a disturbance in Jesse’s room, Hank must break through a line of police tape blocking off the stairs to the second level of his motel complex. This small detail says so much in such a brief period of time, and indeed foreshadows numerous events later in the film, although you wouldn’t realise it at the time. The cinematography alone will equally keep many viewers invested in the film on a purely aesthetic level, for it is indeed incredible work by Natasha Braier. This is the kind of craftsmanship, and love for the ways in which film can speak to us, which won me over so wholeheartedly with Drive.

And this really brings us to the heart of what is so challenging about The Neon Demon. There is such an aptitude for filmmaking as a craft in so many areas of the film, and it is a kind of psychologically challenging watch rarely seen by today’s cinematic standards, but it is so often let down in parts that I’m left disappointed and, to be honest, a little angered. Refn has the substance in there somewhere – it rears its head from time to time throughout The Neon Demon – but it is shrouded in his own personal self-gratification. Even the opening titles feature the initials “NWR” at the bottom of the screen, potentially a poke at the fashion industry but incredibly needless and irritating nonetheless. One can only assume that the success of Drive went to his head, for his latest two efforts are so caught up in their own sex appeal that they forget what made Refn’s 2011 film so tremendous: a basic appeal to his audience to connect with the film on a deeper human level. For all of its rare but brightly-illuminated brilliance, The Neon Demon falls short of the mark. He doesn’t have a responsibility to make it comfortable for his viewer, but he does have a responsibility to make something good for his viewer. To ignore that principle, Mr. Refn, is the greatest sin of all.

MY RATING: 5 out of 10.

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