The Neon Demon (2016): Slow and Weird (Review)

Elle Fanning The Neon Demon

Written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, The Neon Demon is, beneath its slow weirdness, a cautionary tale and a horror film that creeps up on the viewer. At just under two hours the film seems much longer and it seems to be almost a love letter to Italian maestro Dario Argento’s Suspiria

The action in this tale of a young talentless beauty “I got looks (sic) and that’s worth money” who attempts to break into the modeling business in Hollywood, is a 180 degree twist to the Ryan Gosling/Emma Stone vehicle “La La Land.”

Unfortunately the film moves at a snail’s pace and Refn tends to drag out his visuals that bit too long.  The director specializes in scenes that take forever to get through, sometimes with minimal dialogue, and while it works on some films, like “Drive” and Only God Forgives it only serves to frustrate and bore in The Neon Demon.

The acting, which is spot on by Elle Fanning as the new kid in town, along with Keanu Reeves and Christina Hendricks (in a blink and you’ll miss her cameo) is a bit hit and miss.  The only other performer who raises the bar is Jena Malone (The RuinsSucker Punch). Desmond Harrington (Wrong Turn, Ghost Ship) looks ill and the two other models are wooden in every sense of the word. 

Reeves is particularly good as the douche motel manager “214 has got to be seen” who seems too impressed by the 13 year old “Lolita” who just checked in.

Fanning, who is starting to steadily outshine her sister Dakota, is brilliant as the slightly vapid teen who wants to become famous and rich on the virtue of her looks alone. As the character tells her male friend, she cannot act, sing or write, so it is her natural beauty that must pave the way to her fortune.

Unfortunately, there is an all too familiar sense of doom to the youngster who seems to be heading on the right track. Everyone she meets is weird or at the very least damaged and we can feel that this will not end well for anyone.

Refn has pulled out all stops here. There is a taste of lesbian necrophilia, some cannibalism and scene that seems to suggest that female models are not better than dogs. (Think of canines and their disgusting habit of eating regurgitated “food.”)

The entire film has a “bad dream” quality to it that is in keeping with Refn’s near somnambulistic delivery, started with Ryan Gosling’s almost narcoleptic performance as the driver in “Drive” and continued with his later role in “Only God Forgives.”

Fanning’s character is, like Gosling’s, almost silent when it comes to everyday conversation. The young thing clearly is not thinking deep thoughts and if she were, could not explain them anyway. Jesse (Fanning) is slow on the uptake which makes her “end” not too surprising.

If there were any message at all with Refn’s latest effort it is clearly that “beautiful” people are not, as a rule, the sharpest tool in the shed. Ambition needs some smarts to back it up and Jesse lacks the knowledge to really survive.

The ending is shocking, to a degree, but somewhat anti-climatic. The film is worth watching, especially if one is a Refn fan, and is available on Amazon Prime, if you are a member, or can be streamed/rented, if you are not.

The Neon Demon may not give you nightmares but the 3.5 star film will make the viewer think. On a sidenote, Keanu Reeves plays an unpleasant character very, very well: “Wider…”

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Author: Michael Knox-Smith

World traveler, writer, actor, journalist. Cinephile who reviews films, television, books and interviews professionals in the industry. Member Nevada Film Critics Society

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