What the fuck was that.
That was my question to myself after surviving Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film, The Neon Demon. And my conclusion was that the effort was – in a word – unnecessary.
The film itself is fairly simple when stripped down to the basics of the premise. Jesse (Elle Fanning), a young unproven model-wannabe relocates to Los Angeles with aspirations of using her innocent looks and fresh skin to puncture her way on to the modeling landscape. Along the way, she makes a few friends including a young make-up artist named Ruby (Jenna Malone) and a photographer male friend Dean (Karl Glusman). But the road to stardom has its share of enemies particularly two blonde jealous models in Gigi and Sarah. And while Jesse seems to get all the breaks as the new face in town, Gigi and Sarah stew in their jealously towards their new competition.
For over an hour and a half not much really happens that you wouldn’t expect. Jesse gets lauded everywhere she travels and the success begins to have an effect on her character. She goes to modeling gigs and gets the job. She catches the eye of a renowned photographer who boosts her confidence further proclaiming her to be something special. But essentially, nothing really happens. Not unless you count a brief moment where a cougar is found in her hotel room or the interesting casting of Keanu Reeves and Christina Hendricks in small roles.
Instead we watch Refn’s neon and pastel colors splash across the screen accompanied by a Tangerine Dream 80’s style musical score that just does enough to keep us from losing our interest completely in the ever-so-slow character development.
Things go a bit off the rails in the film’s final reels when we get introduced to an awkward necrophilia lesbian scene and then a climax that had us going “Oh, saw that coming. Wait. What?”
For all the colors, music and pretty spot on performances from an abbreviated call sheet, the film was so blah and uninteresting that we marveled at how Refn got the project off the ground in the first place. How Refn was able to go into a producer’s office with this idea and script and sell them on any kind of financing is beyond us. So much so that we thought we missed something. Maybe there was a hidden message in the film. Maybe Refn outsmarted us. Nope. Reflection has given us clear 20/20 and we can soak no entertainment moisture out of the dry sponge that was The Neon Demon.
That leads us to conclude that maybe, just maybe, The Neon Demon was nothing more than a self-indulging effort by an experimental director. That may well be the case but it doesn’t make The Neon Demon any more stimulating.
Refn broke onto the scene a few years back with the film Drive starring Ryan Gosling. Drive was a mixture of coolness and violence all wrapped up snug in the same sleeping blanket. But since then, Refn has disappointed with Only God Forgives and now The Neon Demon. He has quickly become the M. Night of the next generation. Someone who gets us going to a theatre based on a past promise that has eroded into WTFness.
The Neon Demon is therefore not on our recommendation sheet.
When aspiring model Jesse moves to Los Angeles, her youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will take any means necessary to get what she has.