‘Beauty eats itself’ might be the overarching maxim of Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest, an easily consumable, surreal, dreamlike but overly-mannered film sorely lacking in soul, insight or anything approximating skilled storytelling. A pretty young wannabe model Jesse (Elle Fanning) enters the fray, hoping to break-in to the fashion scene in what appears to be an eerily-empty, hollowed out version of L.A. Her youth and inexperience are soon overlooked in favour of her striking looks. She becomes the flavour of the month but in what is a brutally competitive field full of vindictive vixens looking to climb the ladder to fame and success – blood on their hands be damned – Jesse will have to watch her back is she hopes to maintain her place in the pecking order.
It’s almost impossible to believe this Refn screenplay was penned in collaborations with two playwrights – Mary Laws and Polly Stenham – whose currency, you’d imagine, is skilled verbal interaction. Yet there’s precious little evidence of subtlety or perceptiveness here. Hell, even a moment in the film not marred by stilted, usually absurd dialogue would have been appreciated. Certainly on a metaphorical level you can extract some socially relevant commentary about the cruelly disposable, interchangeable nature of beauty, but the message is hollow and futile when saturated by mediocre, sub-Argento stylings that leave you cold.
Refn is, and will always be a favourite director, but his two films since the masterful Drive (2011) have formed what may be the start of a regrettable, inevitable devolution, where his ever-expanding obsession with style curation has utterly stifled any possibility of simultaneously creating something of real substance. The film is, of course, glorious to behold from a visual standpoint, as any Refn film is, thanks on this occasion to a first-time collaborator, cinematographer Natasha Braier. Aesthetically intoxicating, there are moments of brilliance in the off-putting, disorienting way he distorts, eliminates, extracts or plays with colour and light, whilst Cliff Martinez’s amped-up retro score works to brilliant effect in certain scenes, often obscuring their vacuousness.
Fanning is far and away the best thing about The Neon Demon (2016). Jesse’s vulnerabilities and naivety are laid bare early on, exposing her to all sorts of exploitation. Yet her assimilation into this world and transformation into a hardened competitor in the fashion stakes is entirely credible despite being surrounded by increasingly weird goings-on and some truly putrid acting. Australian contributors Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee as Jesse’s combatants Gigi and Sarah are just diabolically awful – two of the most wooden, dire performances of recent times. Dexter alumni Desmond Harrington also has a couple of hilariously awful scenes as a farcically intense, almost non-verbal hotshot photographer. Marlon Brando, he’s not. Even the usually reliable Jena Malone as the make-up artist of dubious intent who takes Jesse under her wing feels weirdly out-of-sync in nearly every scene she’s in, including the film’s most embarrassingly awful in which she spends time alone with a corpse.
An overwhelming sense of extraneousness is what ultimately sinks The Neon Demon. Ah, the agony of sitting through so many poorly written, utterly pointless scenes, including every one featuring Keanu Reeves, for starters. This disjointed film sorely lacks cohesion, whilst individual scenes never feel part of a narrative flow, making it a frustrating viewing experience. Those imagining a shrewd illumination of the film’s themes at the end of proceedings will be sorely disappointed. If anything, the final few scenes only exemplify the film’s ill-discipline and asinine, juvenile approach to narrative and, especially, to horror. Subverting social commentary beneath shimmering layer after layer of dizzying, rancid obliqueness does not render it in any way profound. In this case, the notion of creative depth is the very last one to come to mind. The Neon Demon, forgetting its most obvious shortcomings, has enough moments of flickering visual brilliance to make it semi-watchable, but this is, depressingly, but a miniscule step up from Refn’s career low, Only God Forgives.
On a side note, here is a film worth seeing in conjunction with this or any other Refn film:
Directed by his wife Liv Corfixen, My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (2014) offers a fascinating insight into the creative processes of the director and the mental anguish that seemingly plagues him with some regularity. It’s basically a behind-the-scenes documentary shot during the production of Only God Forgives (2013) and shows Refn often overly burdened and struggling to come to terms with his day-to-day ordeals. His evaluation of the film ebbs and flows to dangerous degrees as he drifts, often, way too close to the heart of his screenplay, thus eliminating all objectivity in a search for solutions throughout the shoot. In post-production he basically deems the finished product worthless, something nearly every creative person must live with upon completion of a piece. A self-indulgent yet fascinating film; ultimately an acquired taste but essential viewing for Refn aficionados.