Nicolas Winding Refn is one of my favourite directors, a purveyor of incredible visuals with little concern about how anyone feels about his films beyond himself. Maybe it’s not always the wisest decision, but his disregard allows him to push boundaries and experiment in ways that I rarely see for people working with his kinds of casts and budgets.
One of the main things I love about him is that he never does the same thing twice, out of fear of getting stuck in a creative rut. Bronson,a hilarious and outrageous biopic, was followed up by Valhalla Rising, a haunting and visceral minimalist Norse adventure. With Drive, Refn finally found immense success and praise with his stylish neo-80’s noir masterpiece, earning him the Best Director award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, so naturally he responded by deconstructing everything he’d done in that film with the startling Only God Forgives. Even with knowing the director well and adoring his previous work, I’d be lying if I said I knew entirely what to expect going into The Neon Demon.
Elle Fanning stars as Jesse, a teenage girl with no talents beyond her miraculous beauty who arrives in LA seeking to break into the modelling industry. As she works her way into the scene, she befriends Ruby (Jena Malone), a veteran makeup stylist, and her two model friends, Gigi and Sarah (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee), who become increasingly jealous as Jesse turns more and more heads. The film lands squarely in between the territory of horror and thriller (as interpreted by Refn), and, though it mostly lacks the director’s trademark grisly violence, it still is certainly not for the squeamish.
As much as I loved the visual creativity, I was prevented from truly getting sucked into the film. Nicolas Winding Refn is often (I’d argue unfairly) accused of being all style and no substance, and while that’s an equally unfounded allegation here in a film that has a plethora of things to say about beauty, gender, modelling, and narcissism, Refn’s intentions are conveyed in such convoluted ways that they simply don’t resonate with any force or weight. With the (practically trademark at this stage) wooden performances and awkward dialogue paired with the otherworldly things that occur during the film’s moderately abstruse plot, everything feels so supremely alien that I found myself unable to connect with anything that was happening on screen. I was stunned by it, reacted to it, even was made uncomfortable at times. But while Bronson drew me in with a compelling character, Valhalla Rising enraptured me with its bleak atmosphere, Drive struck me with emotional gut-punches, and Only God Forgives told a brilliant story through naught but colour and shape, The Neon Demon kept me perpetually at arm’s length with its disjointed tone, never to truly feel the shock and horror it wanted me to.
I could point to the cloddish performances or lack of rhythm as faults (which, if I’m being honest, in this case I’d have to say they are), but they’re also part of what make the film memorable, in a good way. Refn loves his nearly inhuman characters and rule-bending, cerebral plot beats, and I love them too. For every moment of cringe Elle Fanning and Jena Malone produce, a moment of sheer brilliance follows, and it makes the experience worthwhile. It’s somewhat confounding to me that I didn’t enjoy this film as much as the harshly received Only God Forgives, and yet I’m so reluctant to really criticise it. Perhaps I just wasn’t in the right mood, or perhaps Nicolas Winding Refn finally succeeded in making a film that just didn’t click with me. Either way, I know that I’d like to see it again, if only to make more sense of it.