Published on July 27th, 2016 | by Craig Silliphant2
Nicolas Winding Refn returns with Neon Demon. Does the film work or does Refn’s belief in creative narcissism threaten to take over and ruin things?
I have been a fan of Nicolas Winding Refn for a few years now, after stellar showings like Bronson and Valhalla Rising, but mostly after Drive, the film where all his strengths came together. Going into Neon Demon, I sort of knew what to expect based on some of the advance reviews, which were polarizing. Of course, it made me think of the follow up to Drive, Only God Forgives.
The first time I saw Only God Forgives, I was baffled. Some cool ideas, but a mess story and character-wise. However, as a few days, and then weeks went by, I found myself thinking about it. Consumed by it. The atmosphere. The colours. The music. I had to watch it again, and when I did, it was like a shroud being lifted from my eyes. No, I can’t recommend that movie to anyone, but it’s turned into one of those reasonably unlikeable movies that I really dig, like Dune or Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Neon Demon tells the story of an underage model named Jesse who moves to LA and gets sucked into the scene. However, it’s also about the idea of beauty. It presents the LA scene as a place where narcissism is treasured, not seen as a sin of personality. The movie wonders what it would be like to be one of the ‘beautiful people’ and then takes that idea to the nth degree. It’s worth noting I heard an interview about the film where Refn states that he considers narcissism to be an important part of creativity, which is a very interesting, though also extremely dangerous thought.
As expected, the strengths of this movie lie mostly in the aesthetics; as with almost all of his movies, Neon Demon radiates a sublime visual atmosphere, from the ideas, to the set ups, to the colours. This is why most of us film nerds follow Refn down into the depths — we know his visionary light will lead the way.
And of course, his strongest collaboration, even stronger than his stand-in Ryan Gosling, is the work of Cliff Martinez. I got wise to the brilliance of Martinez when I saw Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape and especially Solaris (he also did The Knick, Contagion, and Traffic). Oddly enough, he was once a drummer that played with The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Captain Beefheart. His work with Nicolas Winding Refn is revolutionary. The marriage of visuals and music between these two creators is the stuff of legend and Neon Demon’s music is another chapter in that fable.
All that praise aside, the movie does have its issues, or at least, it’s hard to access it at points, especially towards the end, usually the worst place to deny access in a film. The story is fairly streamlined and well done as Elle Fanning’s beauty navigates the snake pit of the LA scene. For a while, it is a smart exploration of how absolute beauty infects those around it, absolutely. However, the film sort of goes off the rails near the end. It feels like two movies smushed together. And this is not a comment on the horror or violence of the ending — you knew that the film was going somewhere horrifying. I’m fine with that. It is more the execution of that horror.
I don’t want to give too much away, but the stuff that is supposed to be terrifying mostly comes off as unintentionally comedic. It’s almost like Refn and company fell into the open arms of their own narcissism and felt like they could do no wrong.
The big ‘sex’ scene with Jena Malone was apparently much more subtle in the script and they ended up improvising a bit for the finale, throwing ideas at the wall. Some of these scenes become so ostentatious that you can’t help but laugh. Certain scenes spin so far out of proportion that horror become comedy. Things become quite literal toward the end. And the once subtle message becomes sledgehammer blows on the nose of things. Though surely not as bad as Return of the King, Neon Demon also ends a few scenes too late.
Perhaps humour over horror is what he was going for? I do tend to give him the benefit of the doubt as some kind of genius and there’s obviously a gallows humour to some of his work. Is Refn intending to be hilarious? And if so, does the rest of the movie support veering in that direction or does it feel incongruous? Or is it simply a bungling of pretentious and obvious ideas? He can be the king of subtle and the king of on the nose at the same time, swinging wildly back and forth between those two extremes. It works in movies like Bronson and even Drive, but is it too much in Neon Demon?
I’m not sure I know the answer to that question. But I do have to consider, that when he makes comments about the strength of his narcissism it makes me wonder if he could use someone to rein him in sometimes, or at least, in recent years. As we’ve seen increasingly with Tarantino’s self-indulgence, everyone telling you you’re a genius is when narcissism becomes dangerous.
I try not to do this too often, but I think I really need to sit on the fence longer with this movie. As with Only God Forgives, I know I need to see it again before I make a personal decision about it. But for the sake of not being wishy washy, I will say that where Drive had crossover potential, Neon Demon probably doesn’t — so it’s only for fans of Refn, or art film in general.
And even if I end up ranking this lower in his canon, one thing is for certain — Refn is still one of the filmmakers I get really excited about. I know at the least, he’ll present amazing visual and aural candy and at the most, sheer genius. And even the stuff in between is great fodder for discussing what we love or hate about movies. The only thing worse than provoking a negative response to a film, is provoking no response at all, something Refn is never in danger of doing.
Post-script edit: I listened to the rest of that Refn podcast about the film, and it appears that they shot in chronological order and made significant changes to the story after they started to shoot. So that meant they had to rebuild the whole story on the fly. Add that to the improvisation they were doing on set, and it explains a lot about how the story holds together (or, doesn’t in places). A very interesting way to work, and Refn prizes that freedom of creativity above all else. So I have to respect that. But I also wish we could see more of his brilliance in a more focused way, as we have with some past films. I should also mention that those interested in Refn should check out the documentary My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (which is actually directed by Liv Corfixen, Refn’s wife). It gives you a window to his work during the shooting of Only God Forgives.