Review: "The Neon Demon"

Nicolas Winding Refn's latest nightmarish journey is high on style and not for the faint of heart. 

By Adam Hlava

Broad Green Pictures/ Screenshot via YouTube

Broad Green Pictures/ Screenshot via YouTube

It’s no easy task describing the experience of watching Nicolas Winding Refn’s new film The Neon Demon. The word “pretentious” is thrown around a lot when referencing entertainment that doesn't exactly appeal to the masses, and I suspect critics who have a low tolerance for art pieces will do the same for this film. It does feel a bit self indulgent at times, but you have to respect how the raw visceral style of this film matches Refn's previous work so closely.

The Danish director is known for artistic and ethereal style of film-making. His most successful film to date is Drive (2011), a stylish yet fairly straightforward crime thriller with Ryan Gosling as a near mute driver for criminals. He followed that up with Only God Forgives (2013) is a hallucinogenic revenge film set in a neon-lit Bangkok, with Ryan Gosling again in a very similar role from Drive. It’s a much inferior film to Drive but at least Refn maintained his signature artistry and style. 

Which brings us to The Neon Demon, perhaps Refn’s strangest and most beautiful film to date. Elle Fanning plays Jesse, an aspiring runway model who moves to LA and is taken under the wing of a few of the more experienced models and a makeup artist played by a sinister Jena Malone.  At first she’s young, inexperienced deer in the headlights. After catching the eye of some hotshot fashion designer Jesse risings among the ranks of the other models faster than a Dodge Stratus on a long stretch of road. This of course enrages her former mentors who set about to plot revenge. Did I mention Keanu Reeves shows up as the manager of the motel at which Jesse lives? I’m guessing Keanu and Refn are buddies and he owed him a favor because I'm not quite sure why Reeves would accept such a minor role. I have to say this might have been a missed opportunity to insert Ryan Gosling into a Refn film for the third time in a row.

The Neon Demon is high on style, complete with a signature 1980s synth pop score, random bits of slow motion for no particular reason, and some nightmarish imagery kind of mixed in. It’s an art-house film that rapidly descends into grotesque macabre. If you’re wondering if the film has scenes of necrophilia and implied cannibalism, the answer is yes. Many people will hate this movie, but it doesn’t seem that Refn made it for anyone other than himself. I had read some the reviews after its premiere at Cannes (it was booed heavily), and a lot of the negative reaction had to do with its deliberate pace and general lack of plot. I did wish the film’s pace didn’t grind to a halt in certain parts, but because I was so encumbered by the visuals and sound I didn’t care all that much about the story (or lack thereof).

In order to enjoy a film of this caliber you’ll need a  high tolerance for pretentiousness and generally a director who makes something weird so that people talk about it. I’m not convinced this is the case with The Neon Demon, I didn’t hate it as much as a lot of critics did because Nicolas Winding Refn does have a unique style in all of his films that I enjoy. The film feels like a hallucination of the glamour and glitz of the fashion scene, and as long as you don’t dig too deep for meaningful underlying themes it actually works pretty well as an effective thriller. Look for a great supporting role from Alessandro Nivola (Pollux Troy from Face/Off) as the smarmy fashion designer. 

The Neon Demon opens nationwide June 24th

Verdict: 3 out of 5 Seats