The Neon Demon (2016)

(On Cable TV, December 2016) Had The Neon Demon been my first Nicolas Winding Refn film, I would have been furious at the downbeat fuzzy-plot nature of the movie. (Or maybe not—over the past few years, I’ve grown remarkably tolerant of movies that don’t put plot first.) But after Drive and most specifically Only God Forgives, I think I’ve learned to put Refn in a box alongside David Lynch: Visually spectacular movies with interesting set pieces but not necessarily a plot worth caring about. Expectation thus tempered, I was able to tolerate much of The Neon Demon without too much trouble … although, if scratched, I will admit that there’s a frustrating quality to the way The Neon Demon gets so close to having an intelligible story (fantastic or allegoric?), only to throw its chance away in a fit of artiness. In five-minute segments, though, the film is tolerable as it tracks the story of a new girl trying to make it in Hollywood. A fable about the exploitation of bodies in image-obsessed Los Angeles, The Neon Demon doesn’t try to stake out new ideas, but it does feature stylist cinematography, grotesque jumps into horror and an overall atmosphere of beautiful dread. Ella Fanning is OK as the deer-in-a-headlight protagonist, but Jenna Malone steals her scenes as a makeup-artist-by-day, lesbian-necrophiliac-vampire-by-night. (Or is she?) Keanu Reeves memorably shows up as a menacing presence. Still, it’s Refn’s work as a visual stylist that remains most notable here and is most likely to remain in mind even as the insubstantial story wafts away unwanted. The Neon Demon is not for everyone (Even after the acclaimed Drive, Refn seems resolutely uninterested in mainstream appeal), but at least I’ll concede that it felt slightly less irrelevant as Only God Forgives.

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