The Neon Demon review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Nicolas Winding Refn has become a very polarizing director for his works that include the skillfully executed Drive and the meandering nihilism of Only God Forgives. The Neon Demon falls somewhere in the middle as a strange piece of art, horror and satire. It’s a film that has divided critics and audiences. Rotten Tomatoes featured a score of about 50%. The audience at the screening gave feedback after the film about it being “very deep” or “totally stupid.” One consensus can be reached among all viewers: Refn is a brilliantly visual director. Perhaps I’m still caught up in his splendor of challenging cinema, but his tricks still work on me as a director with his own style and tone.
Elle Fanning plays Jesse, an underage aspiring model who finds herself pulled into the scummy world of modelling of Los Angeles. The glitz and glamor of the modeling world begins to take hold of her innocence. She surrounds herself with people in the industry that are interested in her for both money and sex. At the same time, she begins to form enemies with envious women with careers on the line. The higher she rises, the more evil and despised she becomes as she accepts the scummy world that let her inside.
Refn’s portrayal of the ugly modelling scene in Los Angeles border between a dark fantasy and a satire. When Jesse speak with other models and makeup artists, their dialogue is dry, simple and dull. That may be a negative, but I thought about just what would these types of girls have to talk about? They’re not exactly the brightest bulbs and are probably not going to have enough experience to speak about anything else outside of their industry bubble. The mostly wooden acting remains questionable, however, especially in the case of Keanu Reeves who doesn’t come off as convincing as a pedophelic landlord.
But what Refn may lack in making his actors either shine or speak without lengthy pauses, he makes up for it with an undeniable trademark style. He sets up gorgeous shots that exude with color and light, layered with a moody synth soundtrack by Cliff Martinez. He focuses on these shot long enough for us to drink them in and analyze each one. Even when there doesn’t seem to be anything happening on screen, there’s a certain whimsical tension in the air for the neon nightmare Refn weaves.
When Jesse arrives at her first professional modeling shoot with a studio, she is asked to undressed and the lights go off. The photographer then begins to slowly rub body paint all over her with more of Martinez’ trance-worthy music. This slowing down of the story allows the viewer to observe the situation as our mind wanders with worried intentions.
Refn doesn’t shy away from going for the more esoteric and horrific of visuals he is known for. When Jesse first steps onto the runway, we don’t see the runway anymore; we see an occultish symbol that she walks into as she confronts herself in the reflection of triangles. It’s a very evocative scene to portray her descent into evil. Towards the third act, a horror aspect takes over which involves a very Cronenberg-esque ending of blood and gore that is presented with a brooding sense of ugliness.
The Neon Demon is easy enough to write off as being artsy-fartsy for its simplistic acting, slow pacing and favoring of style over substance. But there was just enough style present in how Refn dresses unforgettable shots with challenging imagery I felt to justify his lesser approach to his story. It’s a beautifully dolled-up corpse of a movie that envelops the viewer in its weird and wondrous world of the artificial and immoral. It may be a hypnotic ode to the likes of David Lynch and David Cronenberg, but it mostly worked on me.