A collection of bright neon purples. A beautiful woman, throat sliced open. A pool of dark crimson surrounds. The opening moments of The Neon Demon most certainly set the tone for, and establish that you are most definitely about to watch, a Refn film. The Neon Demon is the story of Jessie, a young upcoming model who, much to the dismay of her fellow models, is climbing the ladder of success shockingly fast. What awaits her at the top however may not be what she or most certainly, the audience, expect.
In typical Refn style (at least in terms to his more recent films) this film is soaked in a thick layer of “neon sleaze” complimented by his own new age brand of arthouse cinematography. The result is an exceptionally beautiful and stylish film. True to his own unique quirks as a filmmaker, this is a very experimental film. Fans of Drive and Only God Forgives will know to expect this and though this film doesn’t break the mold in terms of Refn, it will certainly be different to other releases you may have caught in cinemas so far this year.
Be aware though that this is not a typical horror movie. This is most certainly an arthouse flick that tells most of its story through interpretative imagery and highly metaphorical sequences. If you are not willing to think about what you are seeing in a wider context and expect everything to be addressed to ou neatly and coherently within the dialogue, this film may turn you off. That being said, The Neon Demon’s plot could potentially be considered very shallow and easy to follow to arthouse fans. This is completely subjective however, and shouldn’t put you off at least checking it out. Whether you think its message is too little too late, arthouse veterans will at least be able to find quality in the aesthetic tone and masterful direction of the feature, if not the plot itself.
In terms of the cast and characters I feel this is where cracks start to show. While everyone in the film gives a decent performance, it’s clear that they weren’t given much scope to flesh out their characters. I feel Elle Fanning was a perfect choice for Jessie. She really gives off the doe eyed, young girl in the big city thing and makes it really hard not to sympathize with her. Also after seeing this film, it may give you a queasy feeling to remember that she was the voice of the adorable little Mei in My Neighbor Totoro - but I digress. While her performance is good, she isn’t given a whole lot to work with as the characters are too thinly written. Case in point, Jessie’s boyfriend, Dean. An underground photographer and Jessie’s only link to the humble side of humanity, it feels like he’s just added in to move the dialogue along. It feels like wasted potential on a character that could have been an imperative part of more interesting narrative arcs.
There are some exceptions however. For instance, Keanu Reeves as Hank, the creepy old Motel owner of where Jessie is staying, is guaranteed to make your skin crawl. The fact that he’s always in your mind as both a stern and strong protector of his land and an ever-present danger to be aware of is a real testament to Reeves’s evolution as an actor. But still, he appears only a handful of times and is kind of dropped towards the end.
Probably my favorite performance in the film though was Jena Malone as Ruby. Ruby is a makeup artist and the only real female companion Jessie has throughout the film. She gives a very warm performance that is so easy to trust and even easier to fall in love with. She’s also the only character, outside of Jessie, that progresses anywhere, and she really steals the show. Without spoiling anything, I’d like to take time to congratulate Malone on her dedication to the role. Some of the things she does in this film many actresses (or actors for that matter) would’ve easily turned down but she invests herself in these on-screen activities and makes it impossible to divert your gaze from the screen.
The Neon Demon is a welcome addition into Refn’s filmography and certainly worth watching, if only for its twisted third act. While the plot is not as thought provoking as it would like to be and the characters aren’t as deep as they deserve to be, The Neon Demon at least nails its desired aesthetic and ends up fitting the bill of its own tagline:
Beauty isn’t everything in The Neon Demon. It’s the only thing.
See it at FACT this weekend - click here to book tickets. Read more about our incredible Culture Shock season of film, selected by Nicolas Winding Refn and showing throughout the summer.