You wouldn’t have to search long to find two people that consider The Neon Demon both the best and worst movie of the year. Its jaw-dropping cinematography, brilliant use of color, and expertly crafted sound design is enough to enamor anyone at first glance, but just like the LA modeling scene of its narrative, The Neon Demon is ugly when you begin to scratch beneath the surface. This is a film that forces its audience to work. Whether or not that’s something that interests you will vary from person to person. Some will call it pretentious and unrewarding, but I find the dedication to symbolism and viewer discovery to be uniquely exhilarating; if not slightly frustrating at times. The Neon Demon is difficult, but that’s the point.
From an aerial view, the film follows a young model who travels to LA in hopes of making ends meet. After a chance encounter with a local makeup artist, doors begin to open for the young girl in ways that she never could have imagined. She quickly discovers that her youth and innocence are invaluable in an industry where so many of its participants are augmented and disingenuous, but she’s about to learn that the industry will eat you alive… if you let it.
Elle Fanning, Jenna Malone, Bella Heathcote, and Abbey Lee all do an exceptional job in their roles. The transformation that each character makes is nothing short of remarkable, but it’s the style and finesse of Nicolas Winding Refn that steals the show. Unlike most films, this is not a story that is told solely through character interaction and dialogue. The lighting in The Neon Demon is very much a character in and of itself. Paying close attention to subtle (and no-so-subtle) changes in light can go a long way in helping you understand what is taking place. These visual queues are consistent from the very beginning, so be sure to take it all in for maximum effect.
As alluded to before, there is a vast segment of the movie watching public that will walk away disappointed, and I understand that. This is not a film where answers are readily available, and not everything is wrapped up in a pretty package. If truly dissecting a film at every turn sounds laborious to you, then you may want to skip it altogether unless you simply want to see some pretty colors and beautiful photography work. That alone could be entertaining enough for some. But most importantly, don’t go into The Neon Demon expecting vampires, or werewolves, or witches. This isn’t a monster movie–at least, not in the traditional sense. You might even be hard pressed to call it a horror film, but I’m not sure you could call it anything else. The violence is understated, yet shocking.
Even after sitting through the film twice, I have questions. That said, the subsequent viewing was rewarding, and watching the film with a fresh set of expectations allowed me to garner far more from it than I did the first time… so maybe this review will help you do the same. Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that Nicolas Winding Refn left us with a truly beautiful and lasting piece of genre cinema.
The Neon Demon [Review]