Review: Refn’s “The Neon Demon” is an overambitious jab at beauty

TheNeonDemonPosterIn 2011, Drive was met with universal acclaim from film critics and audiences alike. The film was so well received that Nicolas Winding Refn even won best director at the Cannes Film Festival that year. However, before Drive, no one really talked about Refn outside of the dedicated film circles and critics. As a follow up to his smash hit, Refn wrote and directed Only God Forgives in 2013. The film received a lot of hate among critics and film lovers. Most labeled the film as “pretentious and boring” and served as a huge disappointment for fans looking for a memorable follow-up to Drive

Now, three years later, The Neon Demon is here and was met with mostly negative response from the Cannes Film Festival. It was reported that people walked out, booed the film, and audiences even yelled at the screen during the premiere. With such a crazy reaction, I was extremely excited to see the Neon Demon for myself unknown as to what I was ultimately in store for.

The Neon Demon follows Jesse (Elle Fanning), a 16 year old that has big dreams of becoming the next top model. She moves from Georgia to Los Angeles and has no experience in the modeling world. Jesse goes on various interviews and eventually meets Jan (Christina Hendricks), the head of a huge modeling agency in Los Angeles. Jan thinks Jesse is destined for greatness and sets up a photoshoot with acclaimed photographer Jack (Desmond Harrington). As Jesse begins to embrace her new life as an model, Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee) become jealous that Jesse is stealing all the work from right under their fake noses. It doesn’t take long before everything starts going crazy and Jesse becomes the center of attention in the modeling world. 

When going into a film like Neon Demon, you should know ahead of time what to expect. This isn’t your typical narrative but rather an experimental art project brought to life by no one other than Nicolas Winding Refn. Neon Demon is a visual fest for the eyes and looks exactly like you would expect a work of art to look like. The amazing visuals are accompanied by an equally haunting and amazing score by the one and only Cliff Martinez.FanningNeonDemonUnfortunately, Neon Demon isn’t a series of images hanging in a museum but rather a feature length film. It takes more than spectacular visuals and a powerful score to make a great film. I think Refn has completely forgotten that here. Instead, what starts off as a intriguing and dark satire of beauty and fame, quickly becomes an overambitious mess. Refn stated during a Q&A that there was no script but rather a fake script that was only used to sell the premise to get funding. I hate to admit that the lack of script shows but it does and it becomes glaringly obvious when the film becomes an odd B-like horror film in the final 40 minutes.

The strangest thing about Neon Demon is that the first half is kind of interesting and thought-provoking in an art house kind of way. Refn creates such an ugly yet honest portrayal of what its like to live and work as a model. The whole “I have no real talent but I’m pretty and you can make money off pretty” is not only a jab at the modeling world but at fame in general. Refn continues this ugly but honest look at the world by showcasing how eager models are to get work and how they will do anything to get it. Its part satire and part truth. It seems like Refn has a real issue with the concept of beauty and fame. He wanted this film to make a statement and I heard his argument loud and clear very early on.

The problem that arises after a while is that Refn just keeps throwing concepts at the audience but gives them nothing to latch onto. There is a scene where Jesse returns to her hotel room and finds a wildcat in her room. She tells the hotel manager Hank (Keanu Reeves) who simply just yells and threatens her. Why is this scene even in the film? It doesn’t even seem to serve any point at all. There is another scene where Jesse cuts her hand on glass and is bleeding badly but her hand is instantly healed the following morning. While the cut does connect in a later scene, I am still wondering how Jesse magically heals overnight. I guess Refn would rather make a visual masterpiece than tell a story that doesn’t include plot holes the size of Los Angeles.

There are plenty of other scenes that seem like they are going somewhere but sure enough go nowhere. To make matters worse, the film contains countless moments where all the actors seem lifeless and stare straight into the camera for minutes at end. I get what Refn is trying to say about emptiness and vanity but seriously how many blank stares can one have in a two hour film. All these elements are somewhat bearable until the shift in tone and genre during the film’s final 40 minutes.NeonDemonFanningIt is at this point where the film becomes an overblown disaster that begins with necrophilia and ends with a person eating an eyeball. What’s strange about all of this is that it isn’t interesting, disturbing, or entertaining at all. It honestly felt like a desperate cry for attention. Nothing about the film’s final 40 minutes shocked or offended me. Instead, all I felt was Refn trying to be gratuitous just for the sake of being gratuitous. It is almost like you could hear him screaming in the background, “look at how twisted and artsy I am!” The whole necrophilia scene in particular was predictable and unintentionally funny. I can’t even begin to comprehend how Refn managed to show necrophilia as not only non-disturbing but also incredibly boring. That is a truly remarkable feat.

I could go on and on about the last 40 minutes and how it changes from a somewhat decent art film into one of the worst films of 2016. It is incredibly clear after seeing Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon that Refn is a visual director that lacks storytelling skills. He wants everyone to view cinema as an art form which any well-rounded film enthusiast knows already. However, Refn seems to forget that unlike a painting, there are more things that go into a film than just the imagery. There needs to be a coherent story and character development. The audience needs to be given a reason to care. You can’t simply throw all your ideas into a film with flashy visuals and a great soundtrack and expect everyone to call it a masterpiece. There is an art to telling a story and it is an art form that Refn lacks.

While I really enjoyed Drive, I have come to the realization that even though Refn directed the film, he didn’t write it. It seems like Refn needs someone else’s material in combination with his visual talent. I would be lying if I didn’t say that I think Refn is a visual powerhouse but as a filmmaker he continues to come off as an amateur. Elle Fanning is a talented actress who has proven herself multiple times early in her career. Fanning can take on any role and this film is no different. She somehow manages to survive Refn’s poor direction because she just comes off as so committed to what little story the film has. Fanning is so believable as this innocent and naive girl trying to get famous. She owns the screen even when there is nothing else going on besides her staring blankly into the camera.

The rest of the cast sadly just tries too hard to match the craziness of Refn’s vision. Heathcoat and Lee are so over the top that I couldn’t help but roll my eyes more than a few times when they came on-screen. They are the stereotypes of vanity and everything that Refn views a model as. They barely eat and talk non-stop about their plastic surgery appointments. They hate Jesse because she has this natural beauty that they lack. Jena Malone, who I normally love, is only ok as Ruby. Given the lack of material, Malone spends most of her time staring blankly and walking around aimlessly. She has this weird fixation with Jesse and just kind of disappears and then reappears throughout the film. It also should be mentioned that Malone’s characters name isn’t said until a random phone call nearing about 75 minutes into the film. NeonDemonModelsAll in all, The Neon Demon is an ambition art project that loses its identity somewhere along the way. The score and visuals are both beautiful and haunting yet the overall film lacks character development and genuine storytelling. When watching Neon Demon you can see that Refn’s is dabbling with methapors such as “its a dog eat dog world” or “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” but there isn’t much more to it than that. The plot is incoherent, silly and dark. No matter whether or not you appreciate art, you can easily see by the end of the film that there is something missing. That missing element is clearly a script and as a result Neon Demon fails to live up to its true arthouse perfection. Its clearly a case of style over substance which sadly mirrors Refn’s last film as well. Audiences will leave the Neon Demon speechless but not because it’s polarizing, memorizing or thought-provoking. They will leave the film feeling as empty as a model whose expiration date has already passed.

Scott “Movie Man” Menzel’s final rating for The Neon Demon is a 4 out of 10.

Written by
Born in New Jersey, Scott "Movie Man" Menzel has been a film fanatic since he was three years old. Growing up, he watched as many movies as he could and was highly influenced by Tim Burton, John Hughes, Robert Zemeckis, and Steven Spielberg. Scott has an Associates Degree in Marketing, a Bachelors in Mass Media, Communications and a Masters in Electronic Media. He has been writing film reviews under the alias of MovieManMenzel since 2003 and started his writing career as a contributing critic at IMDB.com and Joblo.com. In 2009, Scott launched MovieManMenzel.com where he posted several of his film reviews but in 2011 decided to shut down the site when he launched We Live Film.com, which he founded. In 2015, We Live Film became We Live Entertainment. The domain name changed occurred after months of debate but was done so that he and his fellow staff members could write about anything and everything in the world of entertainment.

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