The Neon Demon is a lot like any other neon color. It’s bright and vibrant, but it’s also a little difficult to look at for an extended period of time.
Despite all the beautiful colors on screen, the film can’t help but seem a bit shallow. This is interesting not only because the movie is about the modeling industry, but because it is directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Known for making Drive (2011) and Only God Forgives (2013), Refn has been hailed as a genius and hailed as a hack. However, The Neon Demon makes a compelling point for his skill level lying somewhere in between. He obviously has a lot of knowledge and care for his craft, but he needs some people to help him hone his ideas and occasionally say no.
The story involves a 16-year-old aspiring model (Elle Fanning) who moves to Los Angeles to try and break into the business. After moving there, she is discovered as a perfect natural beauty and becomes quite successful, to the shock of her friends turned competition. Given its themes and the voyeurism involved here, it would seem incredibly creepy for Refn to direct this film, if not for the fact that it is co-written by two women (Mary Laws and Polly Stenham) and shot by a female cinematographer (Natasha Braier). It’s still a bit uncomfortable, but not as bad as it could have been. Instead, the movie is creepy, but creepy because it is a horror film.
The Neon Demon’s cinematography is far and away its strongest quality. The camera guides the eye with an incredible amount of control. It’s obvious that a lot of thought went into the blocking and the framing, because they tell the audience more about the characters than any of the dialogue. The insane array of colors (as one would expect from the title) in combination with some crazy imagery and a stunning score creates an incredibly visceral and cathartic experience. Even though nothing truly horrific occurs until the third act, these elements help create a really unsettling tone.
Where the film succeeds are within its small moments. Because so much of the movie exists in stillness, a small twitch or movement can have a big impact. Unfortunately, the film’s introspection leaves its larger moments seeming disconnected from the film as a whole. While this could leave a lasting impression on the audience, it ends up just seeming off. And this has drastic impacts when it comes to the movie’s pace. Because everything is so still and because not a lot happens, the film is pretty to look at but tough to watch. These big moments that are supposed to raise the stakes end up removing all momentum and setting the audience back where they started.
The dialogue within the movie is also a bit vapid. Of course, because the film is a glimpse into the modeling industry, that’s the point, but there are also quite a few lines that are lacking purpose. It appears that Refn is so far into his head that he is focused on themes that are either not relevant or not interesting. The ultimate message the movie seems to be sending is a bit redundant, and the film ultimately seems a bit like an echo chamber.
Although the movie is missing a lot of the interesting points it could be making, it’s still a jaw-dropping experience. The film is more than a little bit weird, but it’s also a strange meditative experience. Despite the fact that he signs his initials at the bottom of the title, I don’t know how much credit Refn deserves, considering that all of the strongest moments were created by others. Nonetheless The Neon Demon shows he still has quite a bit of potential.