Movie Review: The Neon Demon

Of the many directors I like, Nicholas Winding Refn is probably my favorite. He focuses heavily on style without ignoring substance, something many directors cannot do. His films are colorful, beautifully shot, and the use of synth is just incredible. They also carry a very art house quality that varies between each movie. His last feature, Only God Forgives, relied heavily on symbolism to tell the story of a man rebelling against God. After repeat viewings I finally understood Valhalla Rising and it became a major inspiration. The most straightforward of Refn’s filmography is the Pusher trilogy, Bronson, and Drive. Does The Neon Demon faithfully carry on his style or has he become more accessible?

After coming to LA to make her name as a model Jesse, played by Elle Fanning, becomes the talk of the town for her perfect beauty. Her quick rise to fame attracts the attention of Sarah and Gigi, played by Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote, as the two become dangerously envious.

Art house films are simple, but complicated. On the inside they are easy to understand, yet they are constructed in a manner unique to the status quo. Making a simple movie complicated is how directors standout. The Revenant was about revenge and filmed with natural lighting. Birdman was about coming to terms age shot in a faux long shot. Without Alejandro Inarritu’s sense of style, those movies would have been no different than any other.

Neon Demon is about how beauty is all consuming. What sets the film apart is the element of horror that comes through in the aesthetic. The cinematography is fantastic as usual, but it is the lighting and color scheme that sells the grotesquery, much like Dario Argento’s Suspiria. Along with neon are highlights of shine amongst bright colors that fill the screen. The ambient synth score enhanced the beautiful lighting with a slow rumble that would build to a beat in moments of intensity.

The writing deserves a special mention. Neon Demon is a great example of how you write characters and exposition. Introductions are single lines of dialog that establish personality, attitude, and where characters will go as the story progresses. It is great writing that does not get bogged down in explanation and gives you room to think about what is going.

The eccentricity is easy to understand except for one scene. There is a part where a spoiler happens, but after a cut it seemed like it did not happen. I was confused because I could not tell if the scene was a dream sequence or real. It is the only problem I have with the movie.

The performances were pretty solid considering the material. Fanning was great at conveying naiveté while Lee and Heathcote were devious as walking caricatures of models going through emotional turmoil. Jena Malone was the absolute best as Ruby, a make-up artist obsessed with Jesse. The way she carries herself exudes the desperation of her character and it was brilliant. I would say her performance is worthy of an Oscar.

For any fan of Nicholas Winding Refn, seeing The Neon Demon is a foregone conclusion. If you are coming for the synth, cinematography, and color, you will be right at home. To ordinary moviegoers, if you have an eye for craftsmanship and the art of cinema, look no further. It is even better if you are a fan of horror.

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