In 2013, Nicolas WInding Refn, riding high off of his surprise sleeper hit, Drive, released Only God Forgives. Drive was one of the best independent films I have ever seen; raw, gritty and unflinching. Only God Forgives was an atrocious mess that sent film goers sprinting from the theaters. It was truly a horrendous film; nonsensical, depraved and needlessly brutal. So when I sat down to watch Refn’s newest film, The Neon Demon, I was very nervous. Was I going to get the solid story telling that made Drive so darn good or was I in for more rubbish that made Only God Forgives so reprehensible?
The film stars Elle Fanning as Jesse, an aspiring model who has just arrived in Los Angeles. Young, impressionable and gorgeous, she immediately starts turning heads. The fashion designers and photographers love her, but the other models quickly grow to be maddeningly jealous of her. Her sheepishness and naïve innocence make her all the more alluring to everyone. Her only friends are a makeup artist named Ruby (Jena Malone) and an up and coming photographer, Dean (Karl Glusman). It is not long before the fashion world (the neon demon, if you will) begins to change Jesse’s world and not necessarily for the better. Everyone wants a piece of her. They want what they don’t have and Jesse seems to be the only one they can it from. What is “it”? Youth, vitality, innocence, purity.
The Neon Demon is a cynical film about beauty and its cost. Refn makes an interesting argument about outer and inner beauty, but does not stick with the theme of the film. Instead the last 30 minutes devolve into chaotic violence, bloodshed, murder, necrophilia and cannibalism. Yes, you read that right. But up to that point, there was a cool vibe to this film. It was interesting and captivating. Refn is the kind of director that you have to know about before you see his films. You have to know what you are getting into; flashy visuals, stunning cinematography and a pulsating score by Cliff Martinez. You have all of that in The Neon Demon. This is a beautiful film to behold. The story is adequate and the acting is quite good. I was particularly interested Jena Malone’s take on her character of Ruby. She is so attractive and likable, that is was tough to see her transition into something else. Malone is terrific as Ruby. I also was surprised to see Keanu Reeves, who usually is the good guy, playing Hank. Hank is a sleazeball who owns the hotel that Jesse is living and it was interesting to see Reeves play against his clean cut image as Hank.
The rest of the cast is decent and satisfy the plot well. Desmond Harrington is creepy as a seemingly angry photographer. Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee are diabolically entertaining as Jesse’s main competition who have other plans for Jesse. Alessandro Nivola has an uncredited cameo as an arrogant fashion designer but is able to do a good job with Refn’s theme of inner vs. outer beauty. Christina Hendricks (also in Drive) has little more than a cameo but does what she can with her limited screen time. Which brings me to Elle Fanning as Jesse. She is a lovely young lady and embodies Jessie very effectively. She is innocent and rather sweet but unaware of the danger she is in. Her role is a risky one, but Fanning does well.
Refn’s pacing is the problem. He labors on certain shots far too long and it took me out of the film’s message. I also found the conclusion rather cold, unsettling and excessively graphic. I am not sure what Refn was aiming for but I missed it. Cliff Martinez, though, nails another score out of the park with a beautifully hypnotic score that is Oscar caliber. Cinematographer Natasha Braier has shot an arrestingly interesting film and captures Refn’s cold vision of the fashion world. Written by Refn, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, The Neon Demon knows a lot about the world of models and fashion. It is too bad that the writing breaks down in the last act. They had a compelling film to that point.
So what is the verdict for The Neon Demon? Well, it is no Drive but it is miles better than Only God Forgives. Am I recommending it? Only if you are a Refn fan. This film will repel most just because it is out there in dreamland for a large portion of the story. Most will not relate to this film, the way it is structured and the final act was quite shocking and not in a good way. It is a mixed bag for me. I guess if you are in the mood for something really out there, then The Neon Demon is for you. If you have to watch a Refn film, my recommendation is to watch Drive first.
The Neon Demon – ** 3/4 out of 5
The Neon Demon – Rated R for language, graphic violence, nudity, gore and adult situations
The Neon Demon – Run Time is 118 minutes
The Neon Demon is now playing in select cities and select theaters. Check your local listings for locations and times. It is also available On Demand and other pay services.