The films of Nicolas Winding Refn are a wild and varied bunch, rarely is each subsequent film of similar ilk as the one that came before it, but one thing they all have in common, despite how successful the film may or may not be, they have all been expertly put together. Not only that, they all have the fingerprints of their creator fully engrained in them; these are films that could only have been made by Nicolas Winding Refn, and his films always leave an impression – be it good or bad, it is a rare thing to walk away from a Refn film with just a “meh”. For the majority of his filmography, I rate them rather highly and as of this writing, I consider his 2011 feature, “Drive”, to be his masterpiece (I rated the film as the best directed of any I saw in 2011). However, his follow up, the Thai-set “Only God Forgives”, I found to be a total bore. Granted, it is stunningly beautiful to look at, but it was the first time I felt that Refn had nothing to say, nor story to tell, and was hoping to ride the wave of the films style, rather than substance which the film completely lacked. “The Neon Demon” is his latest film and sees him return to L.A where “Drive” was shot and set. I was looking forward to finding out whether Refn was going to continue down the path of style over substance, or if he legitimately had something to convey or say this time around. Early reports out of Cannes indicated that the film was incredibly dividing, which got me even more excited to see it, to find out just what all the fuss was about and now, thanks to MIFF, I have done so, and can report to you all about my experiences with “The Neon Demon”.
“The Neon Demon” is set in the L.A fashion and modelling scene. We are introduced immediately to Jessie, the protagonist of the film, as she enters the city, wide eyed and full of dreams. While certainly naïve of the potential depravities surrounding her, Jessie is not as innocent or as helpless as she looks, but conversely, she also isn't as tough or aware as she thinks. It becomes apparent very quickly that Jessie has something; she has “it”, and that she isn't going to be just another girl in a long line of hopefuls destined to be disappointed and broken by the cut-throat nature of both the industry and city. Jessie immediately turns heads and catches eyes as casting directors and designers all want to work with her. This doesn't sit well with the other girls in the industry who all want what Jessie has, and soon it isn't long before Jessie not only has to watch out for her competitors, who will do anything to bring her down, but of the industry itself, which is determined to exploit her for all she is worth before her very short expiration date arrives. Even if Jessie can defend herself from all of this in an attempt to achieve her dream, can she do so without herself being corrupted, or will she need to sell her soul to become the success she dreams of?
I'm going to be upfront and say I really do not know how I feel about this crazy and demented film, nor whether or not my initial opinions of it, will be my final after subsequent viewings. Because of this, this may be less of a review and more like rambling thoughts I have regarding the film. One thing I will say is that “The Neon Demon” is a wild ride, and for a movie that has a two hour running time, it just flew by. Once again, the visuals take centre stage making “The Neon Demon” gorgeous to stare at and get lost in. Each image appears to have been worked out to the tiniest millimetre to ensure perfection which I guess is warranted in a film about modelling where image is everything. I am forever stunned by Refn's use of colour in his films, not least of all because the man is colour blind, and this new film is no exception. The colour pallet is hardly subtle, but is used to signify where Jessie is, in terms of her character's arc. The very early scenes when she first hits L.A are all shot in blinding white, to symbolise her purity and innocence, however after this initial photo shoot, white gives way to blue; Jessie is no longer innocent and completely pure (she has been “tainted” slightly by shooting in the nude) but the blue signifies that she is still relatively naïve. Blue remains prominent for a while as Jessie catches the eye of the best talent in the industry, as she secures herself numerous jobs while still remaining true to herself. It isn't until she becomes one of “them”, and turns cold and self obsessed, thus corrupted, that the film is then bathed in red primarily and then the rest of the film onwards becomes full of madness and depravity. Whilst other colours are also boldly used in the film, those three are significant to Jessie. One visual aspect of the film that is obviously symbolic, but that I cannot wrap my head around (at least on a single viewing), is all of the triangle imagery that Refn has placed into the film. Their significance is obviously important to him, especially because Jessie's biggest transformation happens within one, and again he isn't subtle with the presentation of the triangles; they are front and centre most of the time, but maybe I'm just not smart enough to understand their meaning. So is this just a film filled with pretty pictures again, or is there some deeper meaning attached to them? Again, to be totally honest, I'm still not sure. In the moment, watching the film, I was seduced by the images and the story of Jessie's journey, but after her big transformation, the film changes and is worried less about plot and more in a surreal atmosphere it creates. In fact, the second half of the film, when you think about it later, very little happens during it, in terms of Jessie's arc that is. All the depravity of the film does come out in this second half but I feel that all this ends up boiling down to is that it is saying that in L.A, there are really only a few outcomes; either your competitors will eat you alive, your audience will just get sick of you, or you become the big success you dream of, but at what cost? If this is all Refn is saying, it sadly isn't very deep, nor is it very original. There is also significant importance shown to the fact that in the industry, image and beauty is everything. Scratch that; its the only thing. Once you lose it or it fades, you will be thrown onto the trash heap. I just can't help wondering if Refn has been smart enough or brave enough to make a film about the fact that image is everything, by making a film that is only pretty with no depth behind it. Is this his statement on the L.A modelling scene? All that matters is the image, not whether there is meaning behind the images? I do not have the answer to these questions.
In regards to the acting in the film, it appears all of the girls have been directed to perform in a strangely stylised way, as they all talk in a much slower rhythm than you would expect in reality. To be honest, I wasn't really a fan of any of the performances; they were adequate but not very consistent. Personally I felt Elle Fanning, who plays Jessie, excelled better as the naïve girl at the beginning but struggled a little with the corrupted model she later becomes. Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote both looked the part but didn't really impress with the exception of one scene with Lee in a bathroom after she fails at an audition. I had heard a lot of great things about Jena Malone's performance, but for me this didn't materialise, as again I just thought she was nothing more than adequate. In fact, my favourite performance in the film came from Keanu Reeves (yes, I know what I just wrote) who plays a sleazy motel owner, in a brief role. He actually comes across very real and disturbing, and reminded me of a similar role he played in Sam Raimi's “The Gift” back in 2000, where he was also playing against type and was great at it.
One of the problems I think “The Neon Demon” faces is the fact that Refn and company have been promoting the film as a horror film, and I think for most, it would fail in this regard. Granted the film, especially in the second half, is filled to the brim with depravities but these don't come attached with any fear or suspense. This is nasty stuff, we are talking about cannibalism, necrophilia, murder and bloody violence on an extreme level, but all of these things are just presented to us, never in a way that we or the characters should feel afraid of, therefore the horror of these actions never comes across like they should, and some even come across as comedic.
I'm sure that there is plenty more I could write about and discuss in regards to “The Neon Demon” but I want to have at least another viewing of the film before I do so, and the fact that I really want to watch it again, must give some indication of the power of the film. Again I will say that in the moment, I was with the film one hundred percent, and its running time just flew by, but it is when I have gone back to think about it some more after the fact, that I am not entirely sure if it holds up nor if it has anything significant to say. It is definitely a bizarre trip and one that I look forward to taking again, and soon, but I'm just not sure that it adds up to a whole lot. One film that I kept being reminded of while watching “The Neon Demon”, was Paul Verhoeven's “Showgirls” and I think that Refn's film has the ability to create a cult audience that Verhoeven's film now has, and deserves. So, anyway, whilst I am confused and bewildered by “The Neon Demon”, I still enjoyed my initial viewing of it and definitely think it is worth taking the trip with, at least once.