The Neon Demon is the continuation of Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn’s series of stylized, ultraviolent thrillers that began with Drive in 2011. Drive surprised the hell out of me when I first saw it five years ago, taking my high school self completely off guard with its kickass neo-80s retro lighting and soundtrack, mixed with bouts of realistic and gruesome violence that brought waves of joy to my teenage face. Drive remains one of my favorite films, but The Neon Demon manages to struggle only about halfway up that ladder.
The Neon Demon delves into more surrealist territory in terms of story, telling the tale of 16-year-old runaway Jessie, and her nosedive into the dark underbelly of the modeling world in LA. While Jessie makes her way up the ranks quicker than most, the other girls notice, and it becomes clear that Jessie’s beauty may not be completely of this world. It’s an obvious allegory to the cannibalistic, dangerous nature of vanity in the modeling world that sort of works, but the pacing throughout the film is an issue. The first three quarters or so of the film are relatively subdued and uneventful, albeit with a constant drone of unease. It becomes tiring until around the 50 minute mark, when the subtle, eerie atmosphere very quickly shifts into a holy-shit-what-the-fuck-did-I-just-witness drop into insanity. The shift is (intentionally?) jarring as hell, and is almost effect. Instead the end result is whiplash at the sheer velocity things go from 0-100. The gross outs are indeed gross, but they’re also silly and absurd, garnering more laughter and raised eyebrows than genuine appreciation. One thing’s for certain is that , you’re probably not going to see another film with a scene of spontaneous lesbian necrophilia.
While the dopey story holds it back, Refn’s aesthetic is no less intriguing than it has been in his previous films, though occasionally a bit more self-indulgent. As the title suggests, the lighting is often bright, flashy and intense, which scenes ranging from dark and deep blues and pinks, to a full scene in strobe, and a giallo-esque chase scene. It’s a style that works, but overstays its welcome. A runway scene that is a series colorful flashes and trippy mirror shots with a black background lasts almost ten minutes. The words “okay, we get the point” will run through your head more than once. Also similar to Refn’s past films is the presence of a killer soundtrack, easily the best aspect of the film. Cliff Martinez, who also did the score for Drive, creates another awesome series of synths that do a great job of selling the dark, foreboding vibe of the film.
It’s a shame, though, that these great aesthetics can’t keep The Neon Demon from being held back by it’s heavy-handed, poorly-paced, and thin story. Possibly what keeps Drive leagues ahead of Refn’s last two films is that someone other than Refn wrote it. While he really has a knack for setting an atmosphere, perhaps it’s better to let someone else put the pen to paper next time.