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The Neon Demon – Movie Review

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The Neon Demon – Movie Review

Rating: B- (Okay)

Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy D Films

There’s a certain segment of the filmmaking community not intent on making films for a mainstream audience and that’s perfectly fine. As long as they still make it compelling and worth absorbing into, they can fashion their films however they see fit. Nicolas Winding Refn is definitely the sort of director perfectly content with making his movies for a limited audience and he certainly goes down some interesting avenues in The Neon Demon. While somewhat hampered by a weak beginning and unnecessarily overlong ending, the core story of an underage model trying to make it in the industry brings a unique sense of surrealism even as it avoids the expected narrative rules.

When The Neon Demon starts, Refn appears intent on throwing as many surreal images and oddly connected scenes as possible, asking us desperately to analyse them. Natasha Braier’s cinematography adds a lot to the scenes, with a stunning canvas of beautiful shots, each incredibly detailed. It’s difficult not to marvel, even when cutting to a random geometric shape. Cliff Martinez’s score brings to mind the electronic sounds of Wendy Carlos and the combination of the music and cinematography plays a part in getting the audience through the rough early sequences. The acting is rather stilted, though one wonders whether this was intentional on Refn’s part to match the surrealism and satire he’s conveying. A lot of The Neon Demon is clearly meant to satirise the modeling industry, but the film thankfully never feels like it’s hitting you over the head with its message.

What keeps most of the film compelling is the story arc of young ingénue Jesse, as played by Elle Fanning. It’s hardly a career best performance from Fanning, as there’s a woodenness to her portrayal, but she is nonetheless able to make the lead protagonist somebody worth following. Through her episodic adventures, she grows and becomes more certain and tries desperately to keep her innocence in this cutthroat industry. One of the more entertaining subplots involves Keanu Reeves in a gruff role as a motel manager. The relationship that forms between Jesse and Jena Malone’s Ruby is the most fleshed out of the film as the two seek their own motivations. The film is just as much about Ruby trying to fulfill her sexual urges as Jesse trying to hold onto her morals. One sequence where Ruby takes out her desires on an unexpected partner is sure to stick in many an audience’s minds.

Refn goes for the dark and disturbing during much of The Neon Demon and most of them thankfully don’t feel shocking for the sake of it. It’s on the last act that he starts to enter self-indulgent territory and appears to be putting his fetishes up on screen. The film also misses an opportunity to end at the appropriate time. At this point, the story has reached its fitting conclusion with the perfect parting shot. Yet, Refn makes the decision to continue on and focus on a pair of characters who were only important to a minor degree. It’s irritating when filmmakers feel the need to continue on, when the story already ended on a high note about ten or so minutes earlier. Most of The Neon Demon is recommendation worthy, but this unnecessary epilogue drops the score a whole point.

Nicolas Winding Refn has a clear vision for The Neon Demon and one he more than manages to pull off. While he can get a little over-the-top with the imagery, it’s a nonetheless strikingly beautiful film even among the darkness of its themes. There’s a particularly strong usage of purple and red, which play nicely into the overall canvas. However, Refn also seems to test his limits a little far and pushes the viewer’s patience a bit near the end. It’s a shame the film ends on a slow whimper rather than the bang that occurred ten minutes prior to the end credits. Nonetheless, this is definitely a unique auteur-driven vision, sure to extract multiple film student essays over the years.

Stefan Ellison