Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Produced by: Lene Børglum
Nicolas Winding Refn
Screenplay by: Mary Laws
Nicolas Winding Refn
Story by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Elle Fanning
Music by: Cliff Martinez
Cinematography by: Natasha Braier
Editing by: Matthew Newman
Studio(s): Gaumont Film Company
Space Rocket Nation
Distributed by: Amazon Studios
Broad Green Pictures
Release date(s): May 20, 2016 (Cannes Film Festival)
June 8, 2016 (France)
June 9, 2016 (Denmark)
June 24, 2016 (United States)
July 8, 2016 (United Kingdom)
Running time: 117 minutes
Production budget: $7 million
Box-office revenue (as of publication): $3.4 million (estimated)
Today's film up for review is The Neon Demon, the latest film from director Nicolas Winding Refn. I've been a fan of Refn's work since I saw Bronson back when it was first released and have seen and reviewed every film he has made since. As such, I've got to see over an extended period an artistic evolution of sorts as a filmmaker. He followed Bronson with Valhalla Rising, a tremendously underrated and challenging work reminiscent of Aguirre, The Wrath Of God as a descent into the seven circles of hell. Then of course Drive came along and while it is a movie that hipsters fawn over, the fact is is that whether or not you like it, there's something quite special and singular about it. I for one thought it was a masterpiece when it came out, and retrospectively my opinions have went up even more so. Two years later, with more the autonomy to do what he pleased, Refn made Only God Forgives, which instead of being the Drive Part 2 that many audiences were expecting, ended up more along the lines of Valhalla Rising. A baroque odyssey in the Bangkok underworld, I remember watching this in the Queen's Film Theatre, and as well as certain individuals sneering and laughing throughout, there were a few walkouts, so reactions were very polarising, and of course it got booed at the Cannes Film Festival that year, but everything gets booed there anyway. So here we are after a longer period of time between features, and Refn (now billing himself as 'NWR,' almost a form of turning oneself into a brand) presents us with The Neon Demon. It stars Elle Fanning in the lead role of Jesse, a sixteen-year-old small-town girl who moves from Georgia to Los Angeles to follow her aspirations of becoming a model, and we see her and what happens as the story unfolds when she enters the industry. Got it? Good!
To start off with the good, The Neon Demon is an extraordinary work in terms of the art of it's aesthetics. From a visual standpoint, it's absolutely breathtaking. Beautifully shot by Natasha Braier, it has that distinctive quality we associate with Nic Winding Refn films, with lots of colour contrast and evocative lighting. The framing of the shots themselves, their composition, is immaculate, playing around not only with technique itself but the central narrative. Also, the mise-en-scene, with the wonderful costumes and production design, is not only reminiscent of what we see (or at least, what I see as a layman) of the fashion world, but is an accentuated, almost hyper-realised version of that world. It's also one of those films that see many different elements have a sort of co-dependency, in that if you remove one of them from the overall piece, the whole thing could come crashing down. As such, the visuals and the story they are telling are backing up by the editing of Matthew Newman. I mentioned the shot composition as being immaculate, and the same can be said for the timing of Newman's editing. Contrary to the opines of many others who saw the film, I don't feel that these scenes were drawn out too long. Instead, we were inviting to bathe in their opulence, these amazing sequences existing not necessarily in the literal narrative of the piece, but that of a psychological, more representative form, similar to the ideas Timothy Leary espoused as regards to his theory of the Reality Tunnel, which in itself, could applied to our perception of the film as a whole. Through the editing, we are able to experience all of these thoughts and feelings. Equally, the film is backed up by an amazing score from Cliff Martinez. His third consecutive score with Refn, it's strange to think that he was the studio's choice to score Drive over Refn's Johnny Jewel (who would play a large part in that soundtrack anyway) because his compositions work so perfectly with the director's aesthetics. Notwithstanding the fact that he understands the fundamentals of using ambient, electronic music as a minimalist storytelling device, he knows how to crank it up when he needs to. There are some breathtaking extended sequences consisting of no dialogue whatsoever, instead just a perfect blend of sound and vision, and this is where Martinez really flourishes. His music becomes the narrative driving force, taking us on a journey that challenges our conventional perceptions, to take things in beyond objective consciousness, becoming instead that of the subjective. It is through these scenes that I think the film really shines and gets across the true essence of what is trying to get at. The film also features a strong central performance from Elle Fanning, who in recent years has shot up as one of the most intriguing young actors in Hollywood, and here she delivers I feel her best work to date. Her character of Jesse has a relatively simple arc, but the way in which Fanning more or less transforms herself, not through any great physical change but over the course of the film through subtly adding layers to Jesse, is a joy to behold. Taking advantage of her natural gifts, she has the intelligence to convey all of this through facial expressions and body language. Much of what is remarkable here is how this is all conveyed through the unspoken, not having to resort to petty amateur dramatics in order to try and hook the audience. She won't win any awards for this performance, and it's a shame really that she hasn't even been up for consideration, but mark my words, I wouldn't be surprised to see her have a major awards season sweep with the next five to ten years. Incidentally, speaking of performances, although it's only a relatively small part, Keanu Reeves is terrifying as Hank, the sleazy manager of the motel that Jesse is staying in. Once again a case, like Albert Brooks in Drive, of casting against type, before we even see Hank, we can tell from the voice behind the closed screen door that he's an irritable, aggressive bastard. Then when we do see him, he comes across as vulgar, intimidating, shrewd and manipulative. Reeves, a man who has made a career playing likeable action heroes and who comes with a reputation as one of the nicest people in Hollywood, conveys all of this in what I assume is less than ten minutes of screen time. That is the mark a good actor. Finally, Nic Winding Refn himself is the last person who should be applauded, both for the conceptual premise and his direction. What he has plotted out is a provocative, decadent look into the fashion world, while also juggling a story that falls somewhere between a melodrama like All About Eve and the twisted beauty of Dario Argento's best films. For all of this and his previous film polarising and dividing people, I personally feel that he is one of the most unique and gifted filmmakers of his generation. There is no one else out there making films like this, and instead of following the runaway success of Drive with any number of projects which could have given audiences what they wanted, he has continued to challenge and provoke us with his engaging artistic endeavours. In many instances, I think The Neon Demon is his most difficult work from a casual viewer standpoint, but on the other hand I was gripped and couldn't tear my attention away from it. I remember texting a friend (who really didn't like it) after watching it saying that Refn has went further down the proverbial rabbit-hole. Well, if this is what it feels like down there, count me in!
As you can tell from my waxing lyrical, I thought The Neon Demon was a great movie. Like Arrival though, I have arrived to The Great However, because for all that is good about it, I do not feel the film to be a masterpiece. It has a lot going for it, but the one thing that I feel detracts from the overall experience somewhat is the script. There are three credited screenwriters, playwright Polly Stenham, Mary Laws and Refn himself, and unfortunately while the central premise is strong, the screenplay itself is not. Thankfully Elle Fanning has plenty to do with the character of Jesse, but the same cannot be said for that of the rest of the cast. The characters on the written page are fairly two-dimensional and I'm sorry, really I am, because you've got Jena Malone, Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote who from a visual standpoint are perfectly cast in their parts, but making their characters prone to extreme emotional ups and downs does not make them fully-rounded. It's a shame really considering how strong the main character is, but everyone around her is lacking in depth. Furthermore, the dialogue in the film is more or less perfunctory, in that it doesn't sound like anything that would come out of anyone's mouth. Even though it sparsely used, it lacks the kind of poetry that was achieved by Hossein Amini's script for Drive, instead coming across as forced and befuddling. I actually had a think about this, because The Neon Demon has been on my mind a good bit since I've seen it. Last year, I became enamoured with the films of Kenneth Anger, particularly the Magick Lantern Cycle, who for those you haven't seen them (and please do, they're incredible), does not make features but makes shorts with little or more generally no dialogue, instead having this remarkably ahead of his time aesthetic which blends sound and vision through extraordinary visuals and the films' score/soundtracks. It has had such an impact on me that I've mulled over the possibility of completely changing the direction of my own long-pending short film. I think if Refn, given all of the extended wordless sequences reminiscent of the likes of Inauguration Of The Pleasure Dome, went the whole hog and made the thing as a silent film, it could have been a masterpiece. As it is though, faults and all, it's still a great film.
As you can see, I've had a lot to say about The Neon Demon. Ordinarily, a film with such glaringly obvious issues as it has with the characters and the dialogue in the script, and how this affects the actors' performances, would have severely detracted from my prognosis. That being said, in this case I will be making an exception, because I feel that what the film does well it does it to such a degree that it is able to somewhat negate the damage done by these faults. Warts and all, The Neon Demon is still a provocative, arresting and important film. While your opinions may not be the same as mine (indeed, I expect that some people will outraged, disgusted and offended by the film), I think that this Nic Winding Refn's latest is a significant work worth investing your time in.
The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 8.8/10
The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Banging (this multi-tasking biz is becoming a lot more manageable than I thought it could be, because I am gradually eliminating all the factors in my life which mean little to me. It's good to be in control of yourself.)