ADDING fuel to the fire that Drive was likely a one-off regarding his recent works, Nicolas Winding Refn brings The Neon Demon, another underwhelming feature that suffers from an overuse of style over substance.
Set in the fiercely competitive world of modelling, sixteen-year old model Jesse (Elle Fanning) travels to Los Angeles, where she is persuaded to pretend she’s nineteen by a modelling agency who recognises her talent. Making herself acquainted with rival models, she finds herself popular amongst her peers, including mysterious make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone), often at the brutal expense of her competitors.
In a relationship with a decent young man Dean (Karl Glusman), she lives in a rundown motel run by the dodgy proprietor (Keanu Reeves) where on one night, she notices an intruder that then turns out to be a puma which has made its way somehow into her room. This marks the first in a series of events which suggest her new lifestyle is not going to run as smoothly as she would expect.
Effectively made the talk of the town, her newly established popularity begins to cause friction with Dean. What follows is the gradual transformation from the newcomer to the established that threatens her safety as the world she finds herself queen could prove to be her downfall.
Refn’s recent efforts have included disappointments like the hollow Bronson, the polarising Valhalla Rising and the dull Only God Forgives. In between the latter, he made Drive, a likely candidate for the decade’s best American thriller thus far. In spite of achieving this, the disappointments before stick and this only just adds to this, even if it is a tad improvement on previous features.
His work is dominated by a slew of stylish sequences, which neither bore nor delight but undermine the storytelling. He films Fanning in a series of surrealist moments, one at the opening where she is seen in the vein of a murder victim, doused in fake blood mainly from the neck. In a possible homage to Goldfinger, she is later ordered to undress by a cold photographer who then proceeds to paint her in gold. It is scenes like this which form the argument for why Refn goes too far with his style and in this case, the substance is missing too often to that point that one can’t enjoy it.
A problem that the film has is its third act, which doesn’t come across as fulfilling. Unconventional as it is, and bursting out at times with Refn’s trademark use of blood and gore, it doesn’t give in to convention. It does display some sense of originality but the end result leaves some wish that there was a better use of convention for it as that would have bought a form of much needed energy to it.
There is not much of a thrill that comes with the third act and when Refn starts surprising us with scenes of lesbian repression, cannibalism and even necrophilia, it feels as though he is trying too hard to bring out shock value.
The intrigue as to what awaits Jesse, if anything, keeps the film going as we want to know how people will react to her lifestyle choices. The element of danger is apparent early on when a puma of all things gets into her hotel room, and the usage of Keanu Reeves as the seedy owner adds to things. In one scene, he disgusts Dean with a repulsive comment about a young runaway in the hotel and seeing Reeves in an unusually sinister persona where his presence is felt is rather watchable. The fact that there is clearly a dark side to him makes it more intriguing given the situations that Jesse finds herself in, where one route could spell deadly, but another could too.
The film makes us as viewers think ‘If only?’ when we think about certain events that happen. It does make us think about for a time after but it does not make us see the film overall in an overtly positive light. The few occasions that there seems to be substance is a case of not enough and though its not a boring film because there are enough questions to just keep us going, the overall view is that Refn’s penchant for style has worn too thin.
The Neon Demon is not Refn’s weakest film and is moderately intriguing for the most part, but in the end, it is best to avoid a second time, proving that Refn has a way to go if he wants to reunite with the merits of Drive.