Beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. Roughly a short month after turning 16 (but passing off as 19), small-town girl Jesse (Elle Fanning) has decided to attempt to make it in Los Angeles. She wants to get into the modeling industry, an industry that is notoriously cutthroat.
She does have two things that put her a cut above everyone else. She’s a fresh, undoctored face, and she’s “19.” In an industry so hellbent on the next big new thing, her footing is found quickly, and many are willing to bend head over heels for her. However, not everyone is so accommodating. Will Jesse own the runway and the neon lights, or will she become the next flash in the pan?
If there’s one thing that is a lock to be received with a Nicolas Winding Refn directed film (Drive, Only God Forgives), it’s that it is going to be quite the visual spectacle. Not in a blockbuster sense, but in a very trippy and experimental sense. That certainty is taken to the nth degree in The Neon Demon, a film that’ll add to Refn’s unique filmmaking style that isn’t for everyone.
There are but a few directors, for better or worse, who can be the stars of their own movies without ever making an appearance on screen, no matter the cast they’ve assembled. Refn appears to be in that small group. The Neon Demon is visually striking, even when the plot isn’t. Well-placed mirrors reflect the true nature of what many of these models are on the inside. Neon is of course ever prevalent, occasionally in welcoming shades, but often in cold and dark, aggressive hues; think deep reed and depressing blues. White isn’t to be overlooked, either. One of the movies best early scenes features it completely, and the way it completely fades into black seems to reflect the last moment of purity the main character experiences.
This Refn production has heavy horror and thriller elements, which allows him to use some first person POV shots to establish unease. The scenes that are likely to be remembered are those that resemble trances. All of it is pretty alluring, sometimes shocking for shock’s shake, and extremely surreal, enhanced by a score composed by longtime Refn collaborator Cliff Martinez that bends and fits into many genres, one that is almost certain to be one of the better ones of the year.
So, The Neon Demon has a ton of style. But if being honest, maybe a little too much of it. Or possibly, it is a buffer for a somewhat lean story and leaner characters. The ideal of beauty and the desire to keep it or attain it, literally and figuratively, makes for a good premise. But, there’s really no statement or smart commentary for a movie that feels like it desperately wants to make some. Everyone seems to be a surface-level antagonist or protagonist. It is no fault of the cast, the writing just leaves something to be desired.
Elle Fanning completely owns her role and looks the part as budding and naive model Jesse, and so does Jena Malone as Jesse’s gatekeeper, makeup artist Ruby, with the latter especially memorable and haunting. Still, like the rest, they really are skeleton-sketched people with little depth. Keanu Reeves is entertaining here, but at some point one wonders what purpose he serves aside from being a volatile creep. There are some nice, darkly humorous lines of dialogue, but it can be a little of an brief bore when their is little dialogue (characters don’t sound that natural) or visual storytelling to go off of.
Refn’s The Neon Demon is a sensory feature in which the director is the film’s star, sometimes to the detriment of other aspects. But, in spite of what can sometimes be an anorexic screenplay, there’s still a satisfying feeling upon reaching the end.
Photo credits to go comingsoon,net, indiewire.com, and thefilmstage.com.
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