I’ve been sitting on this review for a while now and I must admit I still can’t fully comprehend the grand picture of The Neon Demon. Part satire of the modeling industry, part ode to Argento and full of Refn’s fetishes The Neon Demon lands in a very spot between the genres of horror and comedy that I don’t think has ever been explored. Even though the film doesn’t play like some of Refn’s great works, I must say its the most original film I’ve seen all year and probably the newest contribution to cinematic genre-bending of recent memory.
The thing about The Neon Demon is that you never know where its going and thats essential to its functionality. Sometimes it feels like a Russ Meyer film and at other times it feels like Eli Roth is shooting porn, its definitely the most unique film I’ve seen this year and though it doesn’t work perfectly and has many visible flaws in its structure it hit me because of it has that raw creativity we lack in Hollywood today. Sometimes its better to try to do something new that doesn’t fully work than providing carbon copies of the same mediocre work. You might argue the film does feel extremely Argento-like but besides the look which is incredible onto its own, The Neon Demon is so insane that it can’t really be classified alongside other works, especially in today’s cinematic landscape.
Since its premiere at Cannes, the film has polarized many and this is because of Refn’s style. Now The Neon Demon is drenched in Refn’s style as you can tell from its title, and that is why the film hasn’t played to everybody, I consider Refn’s style to act as a double-edged sword in this film, sometimes giving the scene just what it needs and sometimes going so overboard it ends up damaging the film instead. An example of this can be perfectly represented by Keanu Reeves’s interpretation of a motel keeper who’s does a good job as the character before Refn decides to throw a curveball and make the character a something else entirely all of sudden, killing the momentum of the scene and adding a tackiness to Reeves’s role. He also has our main group of characters attend his vision of a “party” involving heavy electronic music, four people and a contortionist performing as strobe lights bounce off him. This not only confuses the viewer, but also makes him keep on switching his way of viewing the film, whether choosing to analyze or instead let the experience watch over him.
On the plus side, as I mentioned before Refn’s style plays as a double-edged sword, guaranteeing benefits. As goes without mention, the cinematography in Refn’s latest is exquisite. Probably his best visual film, the work Natasha Braier does as cinematographer is astounding. Melding colors, an incredible use of focus, perfect use of light and shadows as well as elaborate staging and framing for everything related to the fashion industry, Braier elevates this film to Refn’s best looking film in his career. With that said, the makeup department also does a fantastic job almost pairing certain emotions to patterns and styles presented on one’s face. Going without mention, the innate madness of Refn’s actual story takes this horror film to a whole new level of wildness. Meshing genres to a create a chaotic, scary representation of how Refn sees the world of the fashion industry works to the film’s heightened reality, giving it the feel of a dark fable that future generations might re-tell.
Like his last film, most of the characters in The Neon Demon aren’t really characters but rather living symbolism of some sorts. Whilst in Only God Forgives the characters could be equated to more cosmic matters like God and the Devil, here we see Refn using characters to represent emotions. Whether its Abbey Lee’s devil-like representation of envy or Jena Malone’s depiction of Refn’s idea of lust, besides our central character every other character in this film help represent the constant turmoil of emotions present in our world. As I stated, the only real character who undergoes a transformation and drives us through this dark labyrinth is Elle Fanning’s Jesse. Viewing the film from her perspective The Neon Demon becomes about the loss of innocence and whilst I wouldn’t categorize this as coming-of-age story it does feel like Refn’s view of one at times. Not only does Elle Fanning do a tremendous job carrying her character through the vicious nature of her surroundings, but also transmits a great deal of emotion in representing that loss of innocence, that turn towards pride, and embracement of sin. Alongside Fanning, all of her co-stars do a magnificent job in representing personifications of dark emotions. Abbey Lee is stellar and carries an demonic presence with every glance she delivers. Bella Heathcote’s character is much more interesting in this respect because she doesn’t play to any emotion until the end of the film, giving an android-like performance. Then there’s Jena Malone who just goes out there and lets her character lead her to some of the weirdest places I’ve ever seen represented in film. I don’t want to spoil the insane third act this film holds in store but I’ll only say Malone goes reaches to unexplored territories, giving herself entirely to her role and letting the essence of The Neon Demon flow over her.
Like I said, this film’s third act is unreal in its freaky bizarreness. Its gross, unpredictable, plain odd, and non-sensical at times and it can either break or make the film depending on what type of viewer you are. I’m still really confused by it myself and although I’m not entirely in tune with what it did and how it felt somewhat detached from the rest of the film’s slow build-up, I appreciate the extremes it went to. It brought freshness to cinema once again and helped one realize what artists are able to do when in complete control of their story.With that said, although The Neon Demon has a variety of flaws here and there it is an experience worth seeking that will stay for you for a while. Its a film that makes you think and truly make you feel, toying with the ideas of right, wrong, what is truly repugnant, beauty, and human nature.