Nicholas Winding Refn’s newest film is a polarising one. The critics love it for its gorgeous cinematography and its astute commentary on the world of fashion modelling, but the public hates it for Refn’s characteristic lack of character development and, well, plot.
Me? I feel sort of in-between.
I’ll start with the obvious – The Neon Demon is, for the most part, very beautiful. Even its gorier scenes are made gorgeous with excellent use of colour and negative space. Beauty is central to the nature of the film, and typically, Refn reflects this in his cinematography. One minor criticism I have is that there’s a very sudden visual shift in the second half, and I feel as though this jolted me out of what would otherwise have been an uninterrupted visual experience.
Mirrors are used to great effect – almost every scene features a mirror somewhere, and the images in the glass are often all we see of a character – a clear extension of the ‘beauty is truth’ metaphors evident throughout the film. Light is also used symbolically – one of the pivotal scenes features a shift from innocent, frigid blues to aggressively sexual reds.
That particular scene also features one of the best uses of music I’ve ever heard. In fact, scratch that, this whole movie features the best use of music I’ve ever heard. Cliff Martinez’ score is a veritable presence throughout the movie, creating edge-of-your-seat tension in even the most innocent of scenes and punctuating the scary moments like a knife to the gut.
Which brings me on to my first semi-negative point: This is not a horror movie. I feel as though this is a source of disappointment for many viewers, so I’m uneasily sorting this point into criticism for now. It seems as though the trailer and early marketing materials presented the film as more of a gory torture porn movie than it actually turned out to be, and this has left many viewers confused and disappointed (because it’s not like they can just go and see one of the other millions of generic slasher movies out there, right?). Personally, I feel like The Neon Demon had plenty of tension and sinister moments right from the start of the movie, but I’ve heard plenty of audience members complaining that there wasn’t enough action and that what little action there was took too long to get started.
What action there is, though, is abrupt and visceral. I’m reminded somewhat of It Follows in that the majority of the film is simply there to ramp up the tension until the inevitable violent climax, and this is done brilliantly. There is no single moment in the film which feels ‘safe’ – the fear just builds and builds, and then explodes. The film as a whole is more ‘weird’ than ‘scary’. That’s my favourite kind of horror – but it’s not for everybody, and it’s certainly not what a lot of the Neon Demon’s viewership seems to have signed on for.
Another turn-off for some viewers could be the sheer visceral nature of some scenes, and the undercurrent of fear that permeates every scene in the movie. The Neon Demon makes for some uncomfortable watching, and though a lot of that uneasiness comes from Refn’s characteristically minimalist dialogue, a great deal of it comes from the incredible performances of the cast. I’ve heard Elle Fanning’s performance of the protagonist Jessie called ‘dull’, but I prefer the term ‘naturalistic’. She does an excellent job of playing a believably naive character, and as that character develops, so do her mannerisms, her manner of speaking, and her poise.
It’s difficult to pick out my favourite performances from a film that was full of incredible performances, but I particularly enjoyed Jena Malone’s performance as the darkly charismatic Ruby, a makeup artist who quickly befriends the ingenue Jessie. Since this is a spoiler free review I’ll keep my comments brief, but Jena Malone embodied her character, even in scenes where it must have been difficult to find something to relate to. From her very first line we get an immediate sense of who Ruby is and the faintest hint of her goals, and Malone’s performance only gets better from there.
My second stand-out performance has to be Abbey Lee as Sarah, a rival model. Her character is at turns pitiable and ruthless, and Abbey Lee handles these abrupt changes very well. Lee is a model herself, and one wonders whether her own experiences have informed her interpretation of Sarah’s character, because her performance is just so believable, despite, again, the unbelievable scenes she is required to perform. Plus, her character’s unflappability brings a touch of dark comedy to the most horrible scene in the movie, and provides low-key humour throughout.
One last point which I found particularly striking – the female characters drive this film, not just in the sense that one of them is the protagonist, but in the sense that it is their stories, although shadily outlined, that are the most compelling, and their actions that bring the film to its climax. At its heart, The Neon Demon is a horror story about women, and some of the most frightening scenes in the movie are built on the kind of horrors that lurk in the back of every woman’s mind: ‘Can I trust this man?’ ‘Is someone watching me?’ ‘Are my friends really my friends?’
The male characters might as well be a footnote, and I say that despite the wonderful performances of creepy motel-owner Keanu Reeves and all-around nice guy Karl Glusman. The importance of the female characters and the comparative immateriality of the male characters was a refreshing reversal of the usual hollywood paradigm. It’s a reversal that I could stand to see more of, especially in horror. To quote Ruby: ‘It’s good to have good girls around.’