What. The. Bloody. High. Holy. Fuck?
Welcome, my friends, to the wonderful world that is the indie-arthouse scene; where the budgets are low, the concepts are high, and nothing makes sense if you’re an “idiot” (according to the director, film critics, and the collective Internet). And of course for our first of these entries together, we have an indie darling, Nicholas Winding Refn (who imprints his initials on screen as the introductory credits roll), to deliver a movie where you’re considered a fool if you “don’t get it.” Sorry, I should preface this review by explaining I thought Refn’s breakout movie, Drive, was alright. No, it’s not bad, I just didn’t think it was semen from God the way several film critics I know gushed about it. So here he comes with The Neon Demon and does it surpass his last efforts? Well…
We’ve got Elle Fanning as Jesse, a young and aspiring model who just arrived to Los Angeles as she navigates the world of rival models, creepy designers and photographers, and even creepier lodgers. She’s basically an innocent dove at first, but soon gets swept up in the vapid lifestyle in Los Angeles obsessed with beauty and having the perfect image. Oh and some weird shit happens along the way because Jesse’s veteran competitors really don’t like being left out of the limelight.
I’ve got very mixed feelings on this film. On one hand, the plot goes, what’s clinically known as, “Bug Fucking Nuts.” On the other, there is an impressive score and cinematography connecting this whole movie together that I’ve been at odds with myself for a few days to figure out of I liked this movie or not.
Let’s start with the positives and see if I can keep up the momentum from there, shall we? This is probably one of the most visually interesting movies I’ve seen all year. Every scene oozes style with isolated imagery to keep you riveted during the entire experience…if you love artistic film making that is. The story is…well…a little harder to swallow, but I’ll get to that later. You’re mostly here for some trippy imagery with several neon hues and the actresses making subtle, disconcerted faces. All of which is wrapped in a 80’s synthesizer score that effectively brings out feelings of discomfort and paranoia as the film escalates. It’d just be nice if the film escalated to anything.
This is a film that seems to be making a point about something, then quickly drops that idea in the climax, because resolution is for neanderthals. It would be reasonable to believe that this film was making a point about the empty spectacle of the modeling world through a hyper-exaggerated lens, but then the third act of the film hits and suddenly, the entire cast goes coo coo for coco puffs.
It didn’t help that nobody talked like a fucking human being in the entire run time. Even Drive, which had a protagonist that spoke like an autistic version of Vin Diesel, had a cast of characters that behaved like normal fucking people. There are maybe two people (if that) that behave somewhat like regular persons and one of them happens to be Keanu Reeves. He plays a sleazy owner of a motel Jesse is staying at and he does a decent job as presenting himself to be a credible threat. Wish we had more of him, because he drops off for the film’s descent into the loony bin with over half an hour to go.
You also have Jena Malone as a makeup artist who also behaves like a more realistic person (until the end of the film), and serves as a confidant to our protagonist and her rivals. She also has a …interesting scene of the more curious sexual variety (if you’re into that sort of stuff). No I don’t mean gay, I mean something way more displeasing which I won’t spoil lest I be stabbed to death by the snot-nosed critics of the world. But, yeah you can see the link here if you’re curious (wouldn’t recommend it if you were planning on hanky panky tonight).
We mostly hang out with Elle Fanning’s Jesse, who opts for the whole virgin being corrupted by the fetishistic fashion world as she’s manhandled by creepy designers and photographers. The thing is, she first gives this innocent schoolgirl act before her first encounters with these disturbing characters but switches to arrogantly and absolutely in love with her own beauty pretty much on a dime. No build up, or characterization, just one scene where she starts making out with her own reflection and then BAM! Self-obsessed model in the very next scene.
Not helping are her rival models, played by Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee Kershaw, were introduced at the beginning of the film as self-obsessed and vain psychotics. Now granted, I know neither actress has a whole lot of experience acting, but I couldn’t tell if their stiff delivery of robotic dialogue was the fault of their own, the script or the director. These two women are pretty emblematic of my problems with the movie, because they act like a spurned men’s rights activists’ vision of girls who would turn them down (if they actually went up to talk to them). Their behavior was stiff and unnatural, but they acted similarly to the bug-eyed men in the film.
Every photographer and fashion designer looks at Elle Fanning’s characters as if they are the last soda in the entire goddamn desert. One dude straight up climaxes as Jesse walks across a room, while the photographers look at their subjects with the loving care of a serial killer about to make his cut on his victim. Now granted, I’m willing to believe that all these separate elements are meant to discuss how misogynistic, empty and hollow the fashion world, particularly in Los Angeles, really feels like. That’s fine, I mean it’s a drum that’s been beaten by about a dozen or so other films and done better, but that would have made a decent little flick about the subject with surreal imagery…but that’s not where the movie ends up.
Instead, the tables get flipped entirely and you’re treated to a bloody climax that comes out of fucking nowhere while your main characters give up all sanity and proceed to take a left turn into Bonkers Land. There was no fucking lead up to the climax, it just sort of happens and your left with an ending where you supposed to say “oh I see.”
Bull. Fucking. Shit.
I tried, really goddamn tried, to see what the hell was this film about. And what I’ve concluded, is that this film is about goddamn nothing. There was no point to be made about the empty spectacle that is the fashion industry, this director just wanted to pull the rug beneath people’s feet and make them think up about what it all means. Look, I’m used to it when I watch a David Lynch flick, but you know you’re about to watch some weird ass shit because every frame is filled with something off-putting and you can see what Lynch is working towards. Worked for Blue Velvet and it worked for Mulholland Drive. For The Neon Demon, it does not fucking work.
While the director still has a knack for unique imagery, his scripts need considerable work. This movie has more in common for me with his last movie, Only God Forgives, only that was somehow way worse if you could believe it. This at least had an arresting score and great camerawork that I can recommend to lovers of avant garde cinema, but I better not hear some grand explanation as to the theme of the film because there isn’t one. Much like the film’s subject matter, this is a pretty movie that has fuck all to say and even less to mean anything.
I’m not going to dismiss this completely for the positives I mentioned, but this is a very low..