Acclaimed Danish director, Nicolas Winding Refn, delves deep into the world of modern fashion and traverses the twisted rabbit hole of beauty, vanity, and a cut-throat industry in The Neon Demon. This new psychological thriller, written and directed by Refn, bears many of the familiar visuals and unforgiving sharp score of his previous films, but is ultimately weighed down by a multitude of uninspired motifs and a drab script.
The Neon Demon follows recently orphaned aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning) as she rises through the ranks of the cruel Los Angeles modelling scene and into the lime-light as an awe-inspiring muse to the big names of the industry. An almost messianic figure to photographers and fashion designers alike, Jesse attracts the uninvited attention of her maniacal and insecure peers who plot to knock the young model off her perch.
Fanning handles her part in the film admirably. In the role of the unassuming Jesse, she conveys a sense of misplacement while at the same time appearing to be comfortable with her newly found stardom. As the film progresses, Jesse slowly strips away her innocent, naive persona and begins to revel in the unintended grief she has caused her vain counterparts. Fanning handles this steady progression with care to deliver an almost seamless transition. If this development weren’t marred by such gruellingly uninspired dialogue then perhaps an even more commendable performance would have been delivered. Keanu Reeves and Christina Hendricks, in supporting roles, also provide commendable performances. Unfortunately though, the trio of Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee as the films primary antagonists, are jarring and overacted.
It’s hard to become engrossed in a film that has such juvenile dialogue. Although Refn’s spin on the ‘rising star’ plot-line is thought-provoking, the simplistic and frankly, uninteresting dialogue does little to maintain our attention. At times it feels more like watching a bad teen drama rather than a layered psychological thriller. Refn’s criticisms of our modern perceptions of beauty is painfully unsubtle, especially when he has his characters blatantly express them through conversation. Like his previous films, Refn re-teams with Cliff Martinez to score the film. Martinez’s signature synthesized sound accompanies the progression of the film suitably. As the narrative progresses, so too does the score’s intensity and vibrancy. The visual violence of this film is unrelenting and along with a terrific soundscape is a treat for the ears and eyes. However, when you fail to factor in a solid script, we begin to lose interest and everything quickly becomes tedious.
The Neon Demon has so much potential as a genre-twisting, psychological thrill ride. With a solid lead, transcendent score, and keen cinematography, Refn half fulfils the films potential but ultimately falls short. The Neon Demon tries so hard to carry itself as a potent commentary on vanity and our modern perceptions of beauty that it disregards the finer details that might keep us attentive and gratified. It wants so hard to be taken in and talked about and I found myself trying so hard to become engrossed. When all is said and done, The Neon Demon definitely surpasses Refn’s 2013 feature Only God Forgives in terms of quality, but only just. Would I recommend seeing it? Absolutely. There’s no doubt that audience reception will be divided for this film but somewhere through the haze of pretension is something worth exploring. Big or small, there is something to take away from this film.
The Neon Demon is playing exclusively to Cinema Nova from October 20.