The Neon Demon, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, can be described perfectly with one word: obtuse. Refn is certainly a polarising director, and so it should come as no surprise that his new film – The Neon Demon – is a film that many will struggle to get through. There are things that I like about Refn as a director, and there are things I don’t like; both are present in this film. Let’s drop ourselves into the immaculately uncomfortable world of, The Neon Demon (through this review) and see what it offers up.
In The Neon Demon, we follow Jesse – played by Elle Fanning – who has just arrived in Los Angeles and is an aspiring model. She however is met with disdain, danger and uncomfortable advances. Her naturally good looks make her a target, and the ruthless world that she is now deep in, could quickly swallow her whole. Something only dark and twisted appears to be the outcome of this story…
So with every Nicolas Winding Refn film; visually the film is a treat. Every scene of this film looks meticulously constructed. But it’s not only how the film looks but the content within those stunning scenes – being in a completely dark room, as a light intermittently flashes, to reveal a women in bondage ropes dancing, all while our main character is stared down by her competition; there’s a lot going on in just that one scene, and it is certainly not the norm.
But then, Refn’ films are always filled with standout imagery. I could easily list off a multitude of scenes from this film – frames even – that immediately catch the eye and cause you to sit-up and pay attention. Your eyes will never once become occupied with anything else but the film, that’s for sure.
While Refn’ films are full of imagery (and many other visual delights) it could be argued that the actual content of his films are lacking. I was interested by what was happening in The Neon Demon, but I never found myself being lost in a story or a world that I was crying out for more of. The actual world that the main character now resides in is not that compelling to watch. What I think is worth paying attention too, are the people of this cut-throat world.
Leading it all is Jesse (Elle Fanning) and for me, not only is the performance by Fanning superb, but the character of Jesse is someone who unsettles you in a way that you want to learn more about her. There is something dark to the character – there would be a hint of a smirk, and that smirk would say so much about the mind-set of the character and also the game that she was playing with other people. Watching this sweet looking little girl from middle-America, turn into this uncompromisingly fierce person, is sickeningly-tantalising. Characters in Refn’ films are not always the most pleasant of people (Ryan Gosling’s character in ‘Drive’, Vithaya Pansringarm’s character in ‘Only God Forgives’) , but there is something to them that makes you want to continue to see there cruel, sadistic ways unfold.
It’s not only Fanning’s character who peaks your messed up side in the film, there are quite a few characters in this film that not only intrigue you but also make your stomach turn. What’s also great about these characters is that you don’t at first see it coming, which makes their moment(s) even more unexpected and distressing when they happen. I should point out that I’m avoiding referencing the characters directly, as it would spoil some truly great moments, but if you’ve seen the film, then I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.
A point that I do want to make about the overall story and characters in the film – and it is something that is also prevalent in Refn’s last film (‘Only God Forgives’) – and that is the lack of life. What I mean by that is that the film feels very cold, there’s no humanity in it. I’m watching all these people and I feel nothing for them; no connection or empathy. Characters could succeed, characters could come to some sort of harm, and I don’t have any meaningful emotional response to it. I think that’s mainly because of how, Nicolas Winding Refn constructs his films; they are done in a clinical feeling way, where everything seems artificially created. Drive was the last film where it felt like there was some genuine human feeling put into it; aided of course by the relationships and interactions between the main characters.
I fully understand why some people don’t enjoy Nicolas Winding Refn’ films – he can be seen as a pretentious director who only makes artsy looking films that are void of any real substance. But I do think he achieves some great things within his films, one of those things being: His films never hold your hand and guide you through a film where all the answers are simply and plainly offered to you. You have to have a certain level of engagement with his films, as they aren’t ones where it’s all fully explained in the end. Your interpretation and your participation are a huge part of it. I like when a film involves me in the process, I like to be challenged and to be left thinking about some of the odder aspects of the film. Now some people don’t like that and I understand why, but for me, it is something that keeps me coming back to his films, despite my feelings on his previous work – I’m looking at you, ‘Only God Forgives’.
The point I want to end on is one of the things that I think that even if you don’t like Nicolas Winding Refn’ films or have never seen one, you can still always enjoy and appreciate; that being the score that accompanies his films. The Neon Demon comes packaged with a great synth score that excites and also unease’s you. It’s one that I’ll be picking up for sure – you put a synth score in your film and you’re going to win me over it least a little bit. But it’s not only the score of the film but also the sound in general. Sound plays such a huge part in this film and plays that part by intensifying a scene or by making you feel just a tad on edge. There are large portions of the film where silence and close-ups are used to greatly unsettling means.
I feel with Nicolas Winding Refn, there is no middle ground, you either love his films and his style of directing, or you absolutely hate it. So when it comes to ‘The Neon Demon’, I don’t think this will be the film to change your opinion of him (good or bad).
So I’m going to recommend The Neon Demon but with a caveat on the end of it. If you enjoy Nicolas Winding Refn’ films then you’ll certainly enjoy your time with this one, but if you don’t like his films, stay away, this film will do nothing to change your opinion of him or his work.
I would really love to hear your thoughts on ‘The Neon Demon’, Nicolas Winding Refn’ or this review, so please leave them in the comments down below. If you’d like to keep up-to-date on my other ramblings, you could either follow this blog directly or follow me over on Twitter – @GavinsTurtle. Thank you so much for reading my review, I appreciate it so much!