Star Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
After watching Drive from director Nicolas Winding Refn, I felt compelled to watch all of his other work. In one film he managed to cement himself in my mind as a modern director with a distinctive visual style that defines his work. From what I knew about his films, Winding Refn did not fall into the category of being another generic filmmaker type whose work could be defined by a visual style but lacked any sort of substance. The second film from Winding Refn I decided to tackle was his most recent film, The Neon Demon, a film that notoriously received mixed reviews at Cannes with audience members both booing and cheering for the film. I went into the film with a certain expectation of what I would experience and I left the film pleasantly surprised by what I had seen.
The Neon Demon focuses on Jesse (Elle Fanning) a girl from a small town in Georgia who moves to Los Angeles to be a model. Jesse is a naturally beautiful girl and in Los Angeles she meets a few models who are jealous of her natural beauty over their manufactured beauty. Of the three girls Jesse meets, Ruby (Jena Malone) appears to be the only one that cares about her enough to try and protect her from the dangers that come with being a model. She also meets Dean (Karl Glusman) a photographer who takes an interest in her and wants to protect the innocence that defines Jesse. After signing a contract with a modeling agency, Jesse is swept up in the world of modeling and quickly becomes a superstar; attracting famous photographers and fashion designers. One by one, Jesse’s natural beauty outshines the girls around her and she finds herself on the fast track to being a great model. As jealously eats away at the girls Jesse knows, it becomes apparent that they are willing to do anything to maintain their status in the world of modeling.
The story itself isn’t entirely unlike any other film that focuses on girl vs. girl rivalries. Our protagonist, Jesse, comes to town with a youthful innocence that many of the other more experienced girls try to take advantage of and tear her down. The film has a very definitive three part structure with the first act introducing the players in the story, specifically Jesse, Ruby, and the girls who are jealous of Jesse beauty, Gigi (Belle Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee) and specifically how Jesse’s introduction to the world of modeling affects the lives of Ruby, Gigi, and Sarah. The second act shows how the fame in modeling starts to affect Jesse by making her a proud individual, even going so far as to push away the one person who wanted to keep her innocent, Dean. The third act shows the natural conclusion of both acts working together.
Some of the performances in the film come across as monotone and the dialogue feels clunky at certain parts, but it didn’t happen enough to ruin the film. In some cases it felt appropriate because the modeling world is shown to be shallow and the monotony reflects the facade that many of the girls put on in order to appear impressive. There’s a clever scene in the middle in which a fashion designer argues that beauty is everything, and in the process tears down one of the girls who has gone through several surgical procedures to make herself more attractive while praising Jesse who has never had any work done. In a similar way, Winding Refn seems to be saying that beauty is everything with this film because of how many shots are included that look spectacular, but appear to serve little purpose to the rest of the plot. It’s as if Winding Refn puts more emphasis on the visuals over the dialogue to reflect the superficial nature of the characters in the way he presents the story visually. It’s only at the end when the violence escalates that the film shows an ugly side of its characters, while still striving to present things in a visually beautiful way.
Similar to Drive, The Neon Demon has a story that is very subdued in its content, even with the violence slowly boiling under the surface in everything that happens. In Drive the violence manifests itself with The Driver walking into a strip club and beating a man with a hammer. Its quick, and pretty tame compared to some other violence shown on film in recent years. The Neon Demon reaches that hammer in a strip club moment and cranks it to 11 and maintains that level for a significant portion of the final act. It’s still not on par with a horror movie filled with torture-porn, but it’s still intense enough to turn plenty of viewers away and to turn them off from the film. Just like everything else in the film, Winding Refn attempts to maintain a level of beauty in his composition with the violence that is occurring, but it doesn’t stop what is happening from pushing the extremes with the terrible things people are capable of.
The Neon Demon is not a film for everyone. It’s either a film that you love or hate, with there being very few people who fall in the middle of those two extremes. I found the film to be a beautiful, visual spectacle that told a story about the dangers of a vain life. Other people will view the violence and depravity at the end and disregard everything else in the film as a superficial mess. I’m inclined to believe that the point of the film is to reflect the vanity and superficiality of its characters in the way the film is presented visually. If you loved Drive, The Neon Demon is definitely worth viewing, if only for the visuals, it just lacks much of the same emotional and thematic complexity as Drive.