2016 psychological thriller “The Neon Demon” is a stunningly gorgeous film. Depicting a young model’s foray into the L.A. fashion industry, it’s a winding tale that concerns itself more with visuals than plot and character development. However exquisite cinematography, inspired performances, and technical
Young, aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning) has recently arrived in Los Angeles, seeking to pursue a career as a model. Upon presenting her initial photo shoot pictures to makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone), Jesse is almost immediately heralded as a prodigy. Ruby’s model friends Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee) are simultaneously intrigued and intimidated by Jesse; her seemingly-innocent demeanor, and natural beauty.
excellence make up for lacking story elements.
Jesse appears to have a similar effect on those she meets, from wannabe boyfriend Dean (Karl Glusman) to renowned photographer Jack (Desmond Harrington) and a prominent fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola). Quickly, Jesse scales the supermodel ranks, being chosen to close her first big fashion show. Yet under the veneer of beauty lies a seedy underbelly ripe with narcissism and conniving.
True to its fashion setting, Refn’s film benefits from masterful cinematography and set design. There’s a Kubrickian vibe to the intricate backdrop, and vibrant, eye-popping use of color. Luxurious dream sequences ooze into the story with vivid visuals. An excruciatingly deliberate pace drives the first portion of the film, almost like a collage of gorgeous and slightly related material.
“The Neon Demon” suffers from the “Full Metal Jacket” syndrome in that it’s comprised of two distinct halves. The first two thirds of the film are plodding, a slow sizzle minus the sizzle. That’s not to say it’s boring, as the story is far from dull. The engaging narrative meanders until the forceful third act. Plot threads feel unexplained, and character arcs incomplete. Jesse’s narrative hints at an intriguing backstory, but fails to deliver. Similarly, amateur photographer Dean simply exits stage left abruptly. Keanu Reeves plays Hank, a motel manager that is criminally underutilized.
As a whole, technical film making takes precedence over the plot which appears almost secondary, as if the narrative serves as an excuse for the lovely, and sometimes haunting, imagery. Make no mistake, “The Neon Demon” is not a horror film, but rather a thriller or drama with horror aspects. Refn’s captivating project is at its best when viewed as a cinematic masterpiece. Superb visuals, camerawork, and elaborate set design craft an elegant picture. Even the soundtrack, composed by Cliff Martinez (who previously partnered with Refn for “Drive”) is a gentle electronic backing.
Give the talented cast credit for inspired performances given lack of character depth. Fanning employs body language and facial expressions to convey her character’s true emotions. Malone carefully paints a dynamic portrait of Ruby. Reeves, in the far too little screen time he’s allotted, makes the most of it and steals each scene. Sparse, dry humor peppers the film, but whether or not it’s intentional isn’t clear.
Overall, “The Neon Demon” is somewhat mixed; while it’s a lesson in filmmaking, character development and plot are thin and lacking. A pretty façade masks several underdeveloped elements. Ultimately, it’s high art cinema about high fashion that stumbles slightly down the catwalk while remaining a visually-pleasing romp.