I recently became familiar with director Nicolas Winding Refn through his recent movies Drive, which I liked, and Only God Forgives, which I hated. It’s probably because the former has a straightforward, comprehensive, gripping narrative while the latter was bizarre and hard to understand, which probably requires to be looked deeper into, but I felt was too boring to be worth the effort of doing so. However, there’s something similar about both movies that made me consider Refn a talented director: the stylishness of the shots. Hence, when I learned that he has a new movie this year, i.e. The Neon Demon, it was something I looked forward to – at least, for the sake of seeing the technical aesthetics of the visuals.
The Neon Demon tells the story of a young, aspiring model named Jesse (Elle Fanning) who has recently moved to Los Angeles to try her luck in the fashion world. Her youthful and flawless beauty draws the adoration and fixation of many she meets, including makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone), but also the envy and wrath of some, particularly a pair of ravenous models named Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), who will take any means necessary to remain on top.
This movie is as challenging as Only God Forgives. When the credits rolled, I wasn’t sure what I thought of what I had just seen, if I liked it or not. I strangely can’t even judge it as a mixed-bag; it’s just too polarizing. Even until now, after having the time to let it simmer a bit in my mind, I still don’t know what to make of it.
I’m still not sure what perspective works best in watching the movie: taking it as a straight up psychological horror, as it’s being marketed as; or as a dark comedy, which I felt was a bit preferable. But it’s really too eerie to be funny.
It has plenty of surreal scenes and is layered with metaphors. It’s just the kind of movie that needs to be watched a second and even a third time, requiring analysis and reflection, before one can “get” it. Now, I didn’t find it as boring as Only God Forgives, but I don’t think it’s fascinating enough to overcome my laziness of re-watching it.
Let me instead enumerate what I liked about this movie. First, it’s beautiful to watch; as expected, Refn’s shots were gorgeous. Second, it gives off this macabre allure that I kind of dug. Third, I appreciate the surreal satire of the fashion business, cleverly making use of fitting vampiric allusions in exploring themes like vanity, obsession for youth and beauty, loss of innocence, and rapaciousness.
Those are solid things to like about the movie. However, why couldn’t I fully declare that I liked it? I’ve a few reasons, though they’re somewhat vague: a.) just like in Only God Forgives, there’s some sense of self-indulgence in the portrayal of gory violence; b.) its weirdness and disturbing imagery often threw me off; c.) I couldn’t shake the feeling that the movie has entered “pretentious” territory; d.) the characters are underdeveloped, and the performances aren’t compelling enough; and e.) the plot is seemingly underdone.
All in all, I found The Neon Demon a difficult, enigmatic experience. Heck, I wasn’t even able to decipher why it’s titled “The Neon Demon.”