The Neon Demon
Dir: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Keanu Reeves, Christina Hendricks, Karl Glusman, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, and Desmond Harrington
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. This statement could not be truer for Nicolas Winding Refn’s new film “The Neon Demon”, a stylish, patient, perplexing, frustrating, arduous journey into the world of an aspiring 16-year-old model in Los Angeles. “The Neon Demon” is unlike any other film playing in the theater this summer, the fact that this film is getting a wide release is fantastic because it should be seen in the theatrical presentation but it’s also a little troublesome because this is NOT a film for the everyday film fan. I also don’t believe that it is a film for every Nicolas Winding Refn fan.
Mr. Refn’s last film “Only God Forgives” seems to have been a practice run for this film. And while both films offer some of the best photography and overall design seen in recent films, they are also equally experiments with varying degrees of success. And while I completely agree that pushing the boundaries and challenging the limits of the film form are the only ways to expand the art of filmmaking, this also comes with a heavy risk. What people connect with from a film like this, one that requires a fair amount of patience during extended/slow building scenes, one that portrays topics like cannibalism as metaphorical and melodramatic, one that shows you the grotesque side of beauty through the eyes of an underage teenager, these elements all compose diverse results as displayed by the screening audience that was a mix of walk-outs, angry Refn fans, confused cinephiles with equal amounts of positive and negative feedback. The beauty here is clearly found with the individual.
The story on the surface is very basic. A young girl named Jesse (Elle Fanning) arrives in Los Angeles, no detailed backstory or purpose is given, she just arrives in a big city with aspirations of becoming a model. Like an innocent sheep wandering alone in dangerous territory the wolves quickly sense her intrusion. Here the wolves are abundant in the form of an amused makeup artist (Jena Malone), two established models (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee), and an aggressive hotel manager (Keanu Reeves).
What is this movie about? The loss of innocence? The corruption of fame? The desire to be admired? The obsession with image and beauty? A coming-of-age film aimed at the peak of misguided influences for young woman? Yes, it's about all of that and more. What Mr. Refn does with "The Neon Demon" is more spectacle and less story, he looks at obsession through slow motion scenes that are drawn out to frustrating levels, he blatantly and viscously paints exploitive scenes of sex and violence influenced by Alejandro Jodoworsky, he dabbles with pacing and atmosphere in the ways David Lynch has perfected, he would much rather push the viewer towards annoyance than offer an easy answer for the style and contorted substance. It achieves moments that are grandiose and grotesque, playing with film techniques and genre applications with equal parts feeling influenced by a master of the craft and a student of the form. There were moments when I absolutely admired what I was watching and times when I strongly questioned why things were happening.
Elle Fanning transforms throughout the film in the lead role, her movement is at one moment timid and then suddenly assertive. Ms. Fanning’s performance, along with a confident Jena Malone, completely supports all the artistic paths ventured throughout the film.
“The Neon Demon” is an artistically absurd, stunningly rendered film that will find both high praise and harsh criticism from those that watch it. Regardless of the sentiments that it provokes, it is still a daring, bold, and clearly uncompromised film from a director pushing the limits of the film art form.
3.50 out of 5.00