Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn has built a reputation on his ultra-violent, macabre ruminations of the longing hiding beneath underworld figures and the circumstances of otherworldly perversity. That career is as atypical as it is polarizing, and carried out in such a manner in which his most mainstream film to date (the underrated 2011 crime drama Drive) couldn’t consolidate audiences into one appreciative camp even if critics were more eager to warm themselves up to Refn’s art house flourishes.
By this point, Refn has seemingly thrown away any of the goodwill his non-devotees offered him after Drive, thanks in major part to his 2013 surrealist thriller Only God Forgives, which continues to attract limited admiration of his coven of followers and hateful derision among everyone else. Packed with violent symbolism and devoid of the traditional frame of acting, the film was booed at the Cannes Film Festival, and its reception in the years following has shown solidarity to that initial reaction. Seemingly pegged down a notch and a bit overcome with criticism over the depiction of women in his films (from the doormat Irene in Drive to the evil Crystal in Only God Forgives), The Neon Demon tries to tackle the criticisms that have surmised Refn’s reception among audiences while retaining Refn’s trademark quirks.
Refn’s tenth feature The Neon Demon follows Jesse, an aspiring model, whose natural beauty becomes the subject of infatuation among all those she comes across including a makeup artist (Jena Malone) whose obsession knows no bounds, and the riff-raff of catty, beauty-obsessed models (Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee Kershaw) with avowed manufactured beauty. Jesse’s presence drives them into obsessive lust, jealousy and awareness of their self-loathing emptiness. In this environment, Jesse is the picture of beautiful innocence in a world of guilty ambition, encapsulating her into the shell of a fawn seeking food in a field of rabid wolves in barely sown sheep’s clothing. This creates the themes central to the film’s landscape.
The male counterbalance plays into an interesting paradigm for Refn’s female-penned horror-thriller. The male characters are mostly harmless. Karl Glusman’s gentlemanly portrayal of Dean is sweet, tender and the only connection the audience will have to the decency one might expect and require of the environment around them. Desmond Harrington is surely creepy as a photo shoot director, but one interested in his art form opposed to objectification for the basest of his own self-gratifying purposes. The pompous Robert Sarno (portrayed by Alessandro Nivola) is a believer in vanity, but at heart is merely a washed up louse. In contrast to the female characters in Jesse’s environment, they present little to no imminent danger. The only remaining male factor is Keanu Reeves’ seedy role as Hank, a motel manager. Although a demented figure at best, his significance to the film is either a structural tool to create a transition or a symbolic message.
As with Only God Forgives before it, the film uses symbolism and unspoken implication to create its allusions, which in this case seem to highlight the illusion of beauty and the obsessive fantasies created to either fake it or make it. However, much of this gets lost in the sparseness of the material and in the symbolism that doesn’t immediately connect to the themes Refn is conveying to the viewer. With an underdeveloped narrative, the film has a brooding underbelly that never brings us too far under the surface. Although its instantly clear from the opening shots of The Neon Demon that Refn has a great eye for cinematography, this isn’t news to anyone who has seen a Refn film. His stunning eye for lighting and cinematography does in some ways temper his tendency toward visceral brutality but replacing it with disturbing, “man-eater” psycho-sexuality doesn’t provide the clarity or the slight push toward the kind of empathetic immediacy the story needs to infuse the required substance into its commentary on society’s shallow view of beauty. Refn’s penchant for showy symbolism fails to impress at this point, and only becomes guilty of what it explores. Just as glamour is not beauty, loads of style won’t create substance. Shock may inspire awe, but it alone does not imply an impact that will last beyond the first wave.
The pacing of the film is too quick to allow the performance of Elle Fanning to burgeon from one extreme to the other. Instead, it forces her performance into a condensed version without the meaty parts leaving Fanning as a mere caricature of innocence tipped into a forced execution of vanity. The all-too-sudden and non-compelling transition between the two is without deliberation, nuance or substantive underpinnings. Fanning may be perfect casting for innocence with her 12-year-old girl looks, but she lacks the stunning or obvious physical beauty or attributes associated with models to command the idea of “demanded infatuation” that the character supposedly possess. The role of Jesse required a stunning beauty that could tow the line between humility and self-absorption as Natalie Portman did in Black Swan or Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive. This is not to say Fanning lacks that acting ability, but the film’s screenplay does not give her wings for that kind of liftoff… and certainly not enough runway… so to speak.
Despite a charming Karl Glusman, a sinister Keanu Reeves, an eerie Desmond Harrington and a pretentious Alessandro Nivola in supporting roles, the film is very thin on story and character development undercutting the power its four main female characters could have. With things moving too quickly to their conclusion, the film never truly realizes the promise of its exploration of a beauty-obsessed industry full of Lady Macbeth types. So while it may rejuvenate Refn’s standing following Only God Forgives, it would only do so on the basis of the critical depths Only God Forgives stands on rather than the high cinematic merit of The Neon Demon glides off of. Refn is no nearer to a territory in which he is viewed wholly as both a great filmmaker and storyteller instead of a pretentious visual visionary. Nevertheless, there is enough here to satisfy the niche audience of Refn fans who enjoy his violent surrealism, which includes me. However, there won’t be much for audiences outside of that niche to consume… if you excuse the pun.
Refn is clearly interested in creating reaction, but in doing so he has begun to pay less attention to whether what he is presenting deserves reaction because it is thought-provoking or merely an offense against artistic expectation. The Neon Demon establishes that Refn is the kind of visual mastermind that would make Stanley Kubrick proud, but by the roll of the same dice, proves that when it comes to storytelling, he never got past the drawing board without the lucky stroke of the pen of someone else.