There are two Nicolas Winding Refns, set apart by time and aesthetic concerns. The first is one of the most respectable (a loaded term when I complete this sentence, but hold with me) and clever directors of genre pictures. This Refn weds American B-picture crime and thriller delights with an eye that puts him in spitting distance of the great European art cinema directors.
The second is the “visionary director of Drive.” The title seemingly plunges the “visionary director of Drive” into all visual aesthetics and art cinema concerns that, thanks to Only God Forgives and now The Neon Demon, has Refn rightfully accused of disappearing up his own ass. It’s indulgent neon and pulsing electronic and long, langorous silence that creates films of space and style first and story maybe 800th.
By the way, I give this phase that title because Drive will forever be Refn’s ultimate achievement because it stood so above anything else he has made from a cultural perspective. Moreover because it wedded the two eras of Refn, even as it created that second stage of his career. It’s a genre film that had huge art and aesthetic concerns and an electronic score that sticks in the brain. He’s really forever chasing that film’s power again, even as he moves further into the arthouse/his own colon.
Now we land at The Neon Demon. Refn moves away from stories of violent men to start telling stories about violent, pretty women in a horror film that gives him one of his best chances at wedding his aesthetic concerns to storytelling possibilities. Does it work?
Short answer? No. Long answer?
The Neon Demon is a story so simple it barely qualifies as a plot, but on the other hand, plot only gets in the way of the artist Refn. Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a teen girl from generic Americana moved to a ghostly Los Angeles, a city seemingly completely devoid of humanity (wink), to become a model. She’s a naturally gorgeous girl and that means she moved up quickly, much to the chagrin of models Gigi (Bella Heathcoate) and Sarah (Abbey Lee) who hate her for being young and pretty and shoving them out.
We also see Jesse’s intersection with the very few other denizens of this LA, including Ruby (Jena Malone), a makeup artist who tries to take Jesse under her wing, and Dean (Karl Glusman), a kind young boy who has no place in this world. There’s some vampiric fashion people, other objects models, and Keanu Reeves playing a scumbag motel owner just because.
Phew. Alright, we’re through that. I’m obligated to tell you what this movie is about, but I feel like that almost misses the point. In fact, much of the normal way I’m judging movies is thrown out with Refn because if I judge this as a piece of narrative, I’m just going to be frustrating myself with a work that never attended to the possibility that it might be read that way.
The Neon Demon is a film better judged like a work of visual art rather than as narrative cinema. So, let’s get a few things of narrative cinema out of the way up front. This movie would be infinitely better if its characters would shut the fuck up. The amount of rope that I’m willing to give a filmmaker varies, and if his dialogue was intentionally bad for reasons beyond my fathoming, that’s fine.
It’s distractingly stiff and unnatural, and even if it accomplishes his goal of creating a fame-climbing and cutthroat Hollywood, it detracts from the film for the distraction it inflicts upon the aesthetic nature of the film. Not only are his dialogue scenes often his least interesting ones, but the eye-rolling, heavy sigh nature of it just makes the damned thing drag.
Especially a shame because when he moves into his worldless moments, The Neon Demon finds something intriguing and haunting and intensely beautiful that can actually tell something more interesting than any plot machinations or stiff dialogue.
I think specifically of Jesse’s first runway walk. It’s to an audience of seemingly no one, walking through a void lit by neon symbols and two tone lights. There’s something so wonderfully performative, so strikingly visual, so haunting. It’s a moment of pure aesthetic, Refn showing what he can do with his camera at his best.
There’s a few moments of this grace, Refn showing what he can do with lighting, staging, and a Cliff Martinez-composed pulsing electronic score. It’s making images that stick firmly into the brain. Even if he’s cribbing his images from Fellini and Lynch and (stealing wholesale) giallo horror filmmaking, there’s something with the way Refn composes that’s artful and amazing.
It’s just a shame that he has nothing to say with those images.
Refn is moving through three art projects in this film. He’s making art about women, art about fame, and art that plays with horror imagery.
His art about women shows that he may not have ever met a woman. It feels so much like the concerns of men about women, the way Refn imagines the interactions of women. There’s nothing here, the same objectification mixed in with a phony sense of “Look how they objectify these women.” He has women parading around in bras and tosses off any concern this might dilute his message when he languorously lingers on the curves of their frames and the smoothness of their skin. His aesthetic concerns overwhelm any sense that he’s got an idea.
His art about fame plays the same game that every other film about Los Angeles and Hollywood has since…fucking All About Eve? At least?
We get it, Hollywood eats people alive. Literalizing it doesn’t help make that any more interesting at this stage. Refn has nothing new to say, nothing personal to bring. He’s saying the same generic messages about Hollywood and Los Angeles’ ability to devour people and artists. If I felt like this was coming from anywhere but Refn’s opinion, like maybe his experience, it would certainly speak more to me. But The Neon Demon seems like another person observing an object from a distance, not opening up the vein and letting himself bleed on the frame.
So now we’re left with his art that uses horror imagery. At any point, this may be his most successful. Refn brings back his sense of puerile darkness from his genre days and welds a Giallo audaciousness to go all out in this film.
Seriously, it’s fucked up, and seemingly without real purpose. Without the first two art concerns, these images mean nothing. Horror at its best is a genre of metaphor, where monsters and gore are informing very real fears. But Refn can’t make his first two arts say anything, so his third can’t say anything really. It’s audacious and it sticks in the brain.
Let’s put it simply, I’m going to remember lesbian necrophilia for quite some time.
It’s a shame too, because Refn with a purpose could make a really great horror film. Horror is images creating meaning, and if Refn had meaning, that motherfucker sure can create an image. But The Neon Demon is the ultimate in style over substance. There is only style, and that leaves one ultimate question.
Why the fuck does this film exist? Is it simply to show that fame and Hollywood corrupts? Is it an art project. One must expect more from a director who’s shown himself capable of more and not allow him to rest on the idea that
“Beauty isn’t the only thing, it’s everything.”