I said it in my welcome post on this website and I still mean it: Nicolas Winding Refn is one of the best working directors today. For me, he somewhat fills that void left by Stanley Kubrick’s absence. He knows how to perfectly capture his ideas cinematically and no one tells stories like him. So needless to say, I was ridiculously excited to check out The Neon Demon, the latest psychological thriller/horror from Refn starring Elle Fanning. Leaving the theater after watching it, that was a different feeling altogether.
As I expected, Refn certainly knows how to piece together visually striking images with a lot of color. It’s no surprise based on the movie title that there’s a lot of bright neon lights in many scenes, and this movie was certainly pleasant to look at and insanely original in conception and execution. Story-wise, some might call this a “slow burn” story, I suppose, as there are times Refn lingers on a scene just to embed those visuals in our mind’s eye permanently, but that doesn’t surprise me; he’s known to do that. The story can easily be summed up in a sentence: a young aspiring model tries to make it in LA, a land and industry full of sharks, and struggles to maintain her own humility in a superficial world. Simple, right? But when you’re an ace storyteller like Refn, you can easily fill in many blanks with striking, long, colorful shots that are practically like a contemporary painting come to life, behind a retro-feeling amazing electronic score.
Moving to the cast:
Elle Fanning – I hadn’t seen much of Elle (who plays Jesse)’s work outside of Super 8, and felt from trailers alone that this movie would be a very demanding, challenging role for her, and my inclinations were right. But she nailed it regardless. I can see why she was cast. She, on the surface, has an innocent look about her, and it’s interesting to watch someone presumably so innocent travel down the rabbit hole of vanity.
Jena Malone – While I was pleasantly surprised at Elle’s effort, Jena (Ruby) really stole the entire movie for me though. Her character was an enigma from the first second we see her, and we’re constantly questioning her motivations up until the infamous 3rd act (which I’ll get to). This is less of a surprise, as we’ve all seen Jena effortlessly act her ass off in previous roles.
Keanu Reeves – Meanwhile, we have Keanu (Hank) as, FINALLY, a Jerky McJerkface. He’s just ridiculously rude, super creepy, and, unfortunately, not in the movie enough for me. He kind of disappears just as we’re finding out more about him and his ulterior motives, for the sake of moving the story along.
Various supporting roles – Other cast members include Karl Glusman as Dean, the love interest, who does just fine. Refn tends to go for the seemingly-wooden performances out of his male actors in this movie, but I get it: everyone in this movie is rather heartless more or less. Speaking of heartless, when you think of the caricatures for the worst possible people in the modeling industry, just picture Bella Heathcote (Gigi) and Abbey Lee (Sarah). Those two were stellar in their performance as the most superficial, envious, and judgmental working models in the movie. And I can’t forget Desmond Harrington’s utterly unsettling performance as Jack, a photographer. What a dick. But really a dick you’d go out of your way to impress, just based on the way he carried himself. Desmond really knocked it out of the park here.
Okay, now the third act: this is where the movie not only loses me, but offended me and pissed me off. And movies rarely do that to me. I was 100% on board with the first 2/3rds of this movie. Hell, the entire time I was thinking “this movie could be my new #1 movie of the year.” I just completely understood everything Refn was going for. There’s a scene that occurs right after Ruby leaves Jesse’s room upset for some reason (I’m trying to avoid spoilers here) that will literally cause 1 in 4 people to walk out of the theater. How did I come across this math? There were 4 of us in the theater total, and 1 dude walked out. I could barely watch, and the other 2 were just watching pretending to not be bothered. Yes, to me, it was that bad. It was disgusting, repulsive, and entirely unnecessary to the movie. It neither served the movie’s plot or characters. It felt like it really served Refn’s odd perversions and how much he could get his actors to do when asked. And after this scene, it doesn’t really get better. There’s some more gross shit and then the movie just…ends. And Refn expects you to just go home and be okay with that.
If you can’t tell, this movie was the definition of a mixed bag for me. I utterly loved the first 2/3rds; it was some of the best cinematography I’d seen on screen all year. That 3rd act set out to destroy all of that adoration and try to make me abhor this movie. Will I always remember this movie for the rest of my years? Absolutely yes! But at what cost?
Make no mistake though, because of Refn’s body of work, I’ll still be first in line to see his next movie. Hopefully that doesn’t make me a sucker.