Review: The Neon Demon
What happens when your mockery of something is as empty, shallow and vapid as the subject? The Neon Demon happens. For something filled with such indelible imagery and arresting visuals, the whole thing felt like a chore. An exercise in navel-gazing that never satisfies in the way it seems to intend to. Its premises are awkwardly flawed, its dialogue is clumsily stilted and every single character seems to exist on some dusty page in a film student's rejected screenplay. Everything about this screams half baked idea that someone decided to still spend money executing. The results are excruciating.
Jesse (played by Elle Fanning) is an aspiring model who moves to Los Angeles for a chance at stardom. At her first shoot, she meets Ruby (played by Jena Malone), who introduces her to two established models named Sarah and Gigi (played by Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote, respectively). As she spends more time in LA, people throughout the industry start to notice her and are in awe of her beauty. As she gets more and more attention, she continues to go on dates with Dean, the photographer who shot her first shoot, who represents a more down-home life than the glitz and glamor she is coming into.
While continuing to get jobs for photo shoots and runway shows, Jesse starts to receive attention over more established models. This rubs Sarah and Gigi the wrong way. What follows is an escalation that is punctuated with a perplexing, but admittedly noteworthy crescendo. The problem is that getting to this final 10-minute sequence where the film finally makes its point requires us to wade through an awful bore of a film. Said crescendo was also so telegraphed that it severely muffled the desired impact.
Everyone whose role in the film had anything to do with lighting or set design gets a pass. These are the strongest elements, as the film seeks to establish a super-sleek and angular world where beauty is valued above all else. They do a wonderful job manufacturing images of this stark reality. If movies were still silent, it would have stood more of a chance at entertaining. Unfortunately, we had to hear what these people were saying and Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) produced, wrote and directed. His direction was competent throughout given the material, but this screenplay was objectionable. Nowhere near as impactful as intended, it mostly ambles in the dark for an hour and a half before finding its footing long after the audience has disengaged.
Elle Fanning's Jesse would have been more well-received if the film was not obsessed with delivering the message that this is the most beautiful woman in the world. While that notion strains credulity, the film moves forward assuredly, flailing about to convince us of this conceit that holds this flimsy narrative together. I wasn't buying it and it is hard for a film to recover from such an elemental flaw baked into every scene. Couple that with supporting characters who are hopelessly one dimensional and there was just nothing here for me. Dean, for instance, was her original photographer--representing small-time notions of simplicity and earthiness. His every interaction with any other character in the movie came with this 'aww shucks' quality that made his every line predictable and offered this bright line theme in a movie filled with them. Every message the film seeks to encapsulate is blared at 11 and repeated. The effect is deafening dumbness.
If you are someone who can simply appreciate visual storytelling and don't need a competent screenplay, this film might be for you. If you are okay with mismatch casting (Keanu Reaves?!) used to create these void-like characters, you may have an easier time getting through this. If you expect a thoughtful progression through a story that received love and attention from its crafters, look elsewhere. Please.
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