Like him or not, Nicolas Winding Refn is someone with a firm opinion on what a film should be and whenever he announces a new project, the world takes notice. When The Neon Demon was first revealed I simply sat back and waited. Apart from some vague notion that it was about the modelling world I had no idea what to expect. Sometimes I end up loving Refn's films, sometimes they leave me completely cold. I'm happy to say The Neon Demon put an end to Refn's recent lull.
While watching Refn's latest I was reminded of many other films. There's a bit of Mulholland Dr. in there, some Beyond the Black Rainbow and a serious dash of Helter Skelter. If The Neon Demon has one big weakness, it's that it wasn't obviously better than any of the films it reminded me of. Refn comes close, matches some of these films' good points, but it never quite comes together to create something better. There's no shame in that, especially considering how high I rank the films I mentioned, but it does leave the film struggling for an identity.
The Neon Demon gets off to a flying start though. The first 15 minutes are dazzling, a feverish neon dream driven by pulsating beats, extremely stylized settings and almost abstract characters. It all comes together in a mesmerizing strobe-like sequence, the kind that's right up my alley. It riled me up for a superb 120 minutes, but when the scene's final flash fades from the screen Refn switches gears and starts a narrative part that kind of left me hanging. It's not as if the film makes a complete U-turn, but the intensity is dialled back a notch or two and the plot is given a bigger focus.
Jesse is a young, 16 year old girl who moves to LA to make a splash as a model. In a world of manufactured beauty, she gets noticed because she's an all-natural. Jesse enters a cold and harsh world, but she quickly hardens to the shallow and exploitative nature of her work and the people surrounding her. The envy of the other girls is enormous though and as Jesse shoots to the top others are determined to undermine her success.
The cinematography is superb. There are no random shots, no sloppy sequences between money shots, nothing left up to chance. The poisonous neon colors drip from the screen, the editing is minute and the camera work is exquisite. You could say the film has two different visual speeds, but that's merely a result of how much narrative is in the way of Natasha Braier's stand-out work. It's no secret that Refn like a well-stylized film, but The Neon Demon is by far his most accomplished visual work to date.
The soundtrack too is a serious step up from his two previous films. The 80s synth aren't completely gone, but their presence is less dominant and demanding. Instead Cliff Martinez serves a more thumping soundtrack, where grit and atmosphere seem to meet in the middle. Refn is also very meticulous in the way the music is incorporated into the film, feeding off the visuals to create an even more immersive experience. I don't think I'd like the music as much outside of the film, but if anything that's a testament to the skill involved here.
The cast is decent, though I'm not a big fan of the almost robotic way of acting Refn aimed for. It's clearly intentional, but the awkwardness at times overshadows the intended effect. Fanning is good as the lead, the surrounding models effectively capture the distorted and mutated beauty ideals that are the norm in the modelling world, but you can question whether Fanning provided a big enough contrast with the people around her. Acting-wise it sufficed, but there's still plenty of room for improvement. The supporting cast is decent too, even Keanu Reeves is bearable.
After the blazing start it takes until the halfway point for the film to shift gears again. The mid-film sequence that illustrates Fanning's metamorphosis is just as stunning as the beginning and seemed to kick-start a feverish rush to the finale, but again Refn steps on the breaks and lets the narrative back in. What's worse is that the finale itself lacks the same visual impact seen in the middle and at the start of the film. I appreciate Refn's choice to avoid the typical "descent into darkness" path, but his alternative just isn't quite as powerful.
The final act is quite brutal though. The first part of the film is pretty PG, with no nudity and few extremes, the ending turns that around. Still, the violence and perversities are so stylized that it would be quite a stretch to think they were added for mere shock value. Deplorable as some of these actions might be, they never really repulsed me or grossed me out. Mainstream audiences might see it differently of course, because what Refn shows isn't your everyday drama, but a seasoned film fan isn't going to be too offended.
There is some greatness in The Neon Demon, but quite often it is bogged down by too much narrative, somewhat fickle acting performances and (unfair?) comparisons with better films. There's a lot to like here, the film never bores or gets stale, it's extremely stylized from start to finish, but two key sequences show a glimpse of what could have been. Still, it's a return to form for Refn and one of the best films released this year. It gives me hope for the future, but The Neon Demon is still some way removed from Refn's best.