The Neon Demon (2016) Review
Director(s): Nicolas Winding Refn
Writer(s): Mary Laws, Nicolas Winding Refn, Polly Stenham
Cast: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves
Plot: Following her sporadic rise through the modelling scene of Los Angeles, Jesse (Elle Fanning) begins to lose herself in the limelight, all whilst planting seeds of anger in her struggling peers.
Review: A young starlet’s rise through an industry running on superficiality and artificiality as those around her attempt to tear her down. It’s a premise that has been done before, and most certainly done better. Returning to the pulsating locale of Los Angeles after finding success with the city in Drive (2011), Nicolas Winding Refn’s neon-illuminated The Neon Demon is a film about the modelling industry, paralleling the acting industry of Hollywood that David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars (2014) and the indie horror film, Starry Eyes (2014), had both recently tackled. Though the setting is different, all three films share similarities in narrative beats, but The Neon Demon falls short due to its story.
It isn’t a surprise that the most underwhelming aspect of The Neon Demon is its most interesting, the narrative, as it is a trait shared by most of Refn’s films, except Drive and Bronson (2008). Following the largely negatively received Only God Forgives (2013), the Danish writer-director seemingly took the criticisms to heart, as The Neon Demon improves upon Refn’s other films that relied heavily on visual imagery and symbolism over delivering a coherent and/or interesting story, as the story, further sustained by all-rounded performances where everyone appears as stiff and stilted as possible to convey the film’s superficiality, and Refn’s style involving macabre bursts of violence, is ultimately leaps and bounds ahead of previous films.
Maintaining his position as a visual artist in all of The Neon Demon’s neon-drenched, epilepsy inducing strobe effects glory, whilst drawing obvious inspiration from giallo films, particularly those of Dario Argento and Mario Bava, Refn’s film is both a throwback and love letter to a genre the auteur holds dear to himself, with Cliff Martinez’s synth score that harkens back to the compositions in Argento films. Where Only God Forgives failed to break even in balancing the story and visual delights, The Neon Demon fares much better, even if the story, heavily preoccupied with bluntly discussing the idea and notion of beauty, while the metaphors are as on the nose obvious as possible, is largely undercooked.