The Neon Demon (2016) (Review)

Never has a film got under my skin as quickly and as unapologetically as Nicolas Winding Refn's arthouse horror The Neon Demon - a film so bizarre that the entire cinematic experience contained in the 117 minute runtime is simultaneously exhaustive and exhilarating. Fuelled by so much style that substance is simply a secondary thought, the characters sketched are paper-thin, the plot is next to non-existent but the visuals are abundantly vivid and vivacious, along with the plethora of symbolism and imagery lusciously laced throughout the film. Quite frankly, this is a film I should hate but instead I rather loved. It's also one that is almost impossible to write about and communicating the strengths and weaknesses of this film is very difficult to pinpoint, so do bear with.

The naturally-beautiful 16-year old Jesse (Elle Fanning) moves to L.A. in the hope of forging a modelling career and very quickly begins to outshine her counterparts, which makes a very harsh world all the more merciless. It offers a startling dissection on the meaning and value of natural beauty, as well as a savage depiction of the industry as a whole. All of this is presented in an avant-garde, neon-haze from Nicholas Winding Refn's mind, known for pushing the boundaries with the likes of previous offerings Drive and Only God Forgives, neither of which struck a cord, personally.

Stylistically, this is one of the most blistering, breathtaking and elusively experimental films in memory - every single shot is rich with colour and tone, vividly conveying the world of modelling in such a provocative fashion. Superficiality oozes from the picture, reflecting the industry which unwittingly satirises itself through its lingering shots of models, somewhat looking for the most beautiful thing in the room, much like the women subjected in the film. In one instance, Elle and her almost-boyfriend Dean (Karl Glusman) are seen driving; its an obviously green-screened landscape and backdrop - something I would criticise in most films - but it actually works incredibly well by demonstrating the fine like between real and fake, and particularly how blurry these lines are in the depicted industry. Whether intentional or not, its masterfully executed to reinforce the messages in more subtle ways than the film's ending pieces of symbolism, imagery which become all the more brash and brazen as the audience heads for the conclusion.

Simple dialogue and relatively understated performances only work in emphasising the film's aesthetic beauty versus the simplicity of the premise. Elle Fanning's Jesse is continually cool and composed despite the fragility and innocence of her image, reflecting a perfect piece of casting by the filmmakers. Jena Malone is another piece of excellent casting, offering a confident performance of a character so unsure of her identity that she begins to crack under the pressures of L.A.'s modelling circuit. Further hooking and underscoring the horrific imagery and tales of the industry is Cliff Martinez's terrific score, combining throbbing, pulsating sounds in a hypnotic, trance-like manner, highlighting the ever-evolving tone of each individual scene. A profusion of horror sequences serve shock value perpetually and whilst I will avoid spoilers as much as possible, the impact of the first scene is startling, with a lifeless body dripping with blood surrounded by such grandeur and opulence setting the tone for the symbolism and thematic metaphors to come

While The Neon Demon is masterful in its visual, the underdeveloped plot can be rather frustrating but requires the understanding that it is simply a vehicle for the visual mind of Refn to work, producing a seductive and stylish presentation. The problem is more in terms of how it is structured and, after a well-paced first and second act, the third act stumbles after losing a central element that leaves the picture feeling stranded and slightly directionless, only compounded by how solid and determined the previous two acts are. Built on striking an element of discomfort through the disconcerting industry it presents, the final scene manages to make very little sense in terms of what it wants to say and what it wants us to leave thinking; for many, that may feed into the wonderful abstract nature of the film, but to me it simply left the film on a rather uncertain note that slightly tingles the otherwise masterful first half.

 Either vociferous criticised or endlessly celebrated, The Neon Demon has been one of the most divisive films released this year and I entirely understand why; it epitomises the phrase 'style over substance' that is continually thrown around in cinemas but is worth a look simply for the outstanding aesthetics which remains stylistically blistering throughout, even if the other elements (plot and structure, most noticeably) do not follow suit. The cast are excellent - especially Fanning and Malone - and the horror sequence are particularly well handled and striking. It won't be everyones cup of tea but it is abstract and niche enough to find its audience eventually - and they will be impressed by this package dressed as beauty but is in fact a beast.


Summary: The Neon Demon is a stylistic masterpiece from the mind of Nicolas Winding Refn and while other elements are severely lacking, it is certainly one of the most memorable cinematic experiences of the year.

Highlight: The aesthetics - so striking and vivid.