Full disclosure: I’m a big fan of Nicolas Winding Refn, and I wanted to love The Neon Demon.
More full disclosure: I didn’t. I liked it, to be sure, but I didn’t love it.
At the very least, The Neon Demon is a step up from Only God Forgives. It seems Refn took notes from that fiasco, and remembered to put in characters for this film, as well as a story, for the most part.
Elle Fanning is Jesse, an aspiring model who comes to Hollywood looking for her big shot, and finds herself surrounded by a bunch of self-absorbed, vindictive, fragile assholes, out for success through any means necessary. So, your classic “A Star Is Born” tale. But grosser. A LOT grosser. Among the assholes are Gigi and Sarah (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee Kershaw) competing models and quintessential “plastics,” make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone) and motel owner Hank (Keanu Reeves, acting for the first time since My Own Private Idaho), a predatory and dangerous psychopath. There’s also Dean (Karl Glusman), Jesse’s not-quite-boyfriend, and the film’s voice of reason. Obviously, Jesse eventually corrupts, becomes self-absorbed, and drives Dean away. Then, the third act kicks in, and all hell breaks loose, Refn forgetting to tell a story. But the first two acts are splendid.
Elle Fanning is perfect as the fragile Jesse, and perfect as the self-absorbed Jesse. She’s a much better protagonist than Ryan Gosling in Only God Forgives, if not quite on the level of Ryan Gosling in Drive. But she has a character, an arc, motivations, and a purpose.The other models are great antagonists, perfectly fake and inauthentic, the same kind of plastic smilers we all despise. Jena Malone is fantastic, and perhaps the film’s best performer. I cannot overstate how much I loved Keanu Reeves in this movie. He puts in an effort to play a character, altering his typical voice, with his monotones accenting Hank’s instability. His usual woodenness and unnatural delivery are almost unnoticeable here, and he really sinks his teeth into the role, proving he does have talent for more than just stuntwork and action one-liners.
However, I cannot deny just how much the film falls to pieces at the third act. Refn’s need for excess kicks in, and, beginning with a repulsive scene that really serves no story purpose – Ruby having sex with a corpse – the film falls into gore, disgust, and overindulgence in its own “arty” ambitions. It’s annoying, considering how much good stuff there is in the beginning and the middle that a shoddy, haphazard, and frankly rushed ending can throw that all away.
Obviously the film is drop-dead gorgeous. Come on, it’s Refn, it’s called The Neon Demon, and it’s about the modeling industry. Every shot’s a painting, and the fact that not a single Refn film has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Cinematography, though not surprising (considering his excesses), is certainly infuriating. Drive certainly deserved a nod over War Horse.
From the stunning opening to the credits sequence, every frame of The Neon Demon is a beautiful painting, a masterpiece of framing, composition, lighting, and color grading. Refn’s done it again.
Though it coheres better than it might, and certainly has a stronger framework and better performances than Only God Forgives, The Neon Demon staggers majorly into its third act, and never recovers the audience’s favor. A flawed film with a stunning look and lofty, unmet ambitions, The Neon Demon earns a C+.
I’m disappointed Refn didn’t entirely return to form, but hopefully he’ll get it next time. Maybe this is his Shyamalan’s The Visit before his Shyamalan’s Split? Who knows?
Until next time.