Film Review: The Neon Demon
By: Jay Armstrong
Nicholas Winding Refn has never hid his ambitious visions below the surface of his work, he is one of the few directors who places them in the forefront to overshadow both the acting and the plot, whether you buy into, or feel distanced by, his realization of the vision is what determines your opinion of whichever canvas being dissected. This is how film after film of minimal dialogue given breadth by visually immersive experiences, as beautiful as they are tense, has us returning time and again to see which social construct he draws into focus to make sense of the ominous whispers drifting around his troubled mind. Refn doesn’t make “art” films, though his films certainly are artistic, there is a huge rift between the two distinctions. Refn has fallen short in the past, Valhalla Rising where the slow pace felt more mundane than surmounting and with Only God Forgives where the stylization and lighting should have carried the film yet ultimately could not dissipate the barrier between viewer and film causing the experience to collapse beneath the weight of seemingly a need to prove his integrity in the wake of the success garnered by Drive, yet each and every offering Refn creates at its core has born some magic unique specifically to his films. The Neon Demon takes each individual strength found from one Refn film to another and brings it all into what could ultimately be considered his masterpiece.
It is impossible to sit through the film and not imagine this to be what would have resulted had early seventies Kubrick been more influenced by Jean-Luc Godard, watched Black Swan, and felt it amateurish. It is visually one of the strongest in years. Elle Fanning is perfect, letting each scene breathe and mount with tension as she shifts between shy timidness and bold confidence from frame to frame, she brings out the genius of the script with ideal integrity, her delivery being the precise example of “the rated R character you’re not sure whether or not you like yet” Vince Vaughn was preaching to Favreau about back in ’96. Jena Malone finally surfaces the potential we have been waiting to see come into fruition since The Go-Getter. Albeit minimal, Keanu Reeves gives one of the top three best performances of his career. If anything this film pulls into focus Refn’s Hitchcockesque ability to perfectly cast a film and then shooting directly into each members’ strengths.
The Neon Demon is visually the most artistically created movie of the year (which is saying something considering Swiss Army Man and Knight of Cups are both on the list), the use of sound is remarkable, Cliff Martinez is a genius, the overall texture so ideal you want to bathe in it, this is a film crafted so ideally it makes the simple thought of listening to someone talk negatively about it unbearable. Sure it may not be a film whose take on beauty as currency sits perfectly in one’s psyche as you are leaving the theater. The stance on neurosis being self-aware yet unbiased begs to be digested with a glass of whiskey and a quiet walk by oneself. Many people seem terrified to interrogate their own thoughts, to understand fully their own feelings, those people will not enjoy this film, as is the case with all great art, making it a spot on litmus test for determining who exactly we should value most in our lives.
I have a very Zizekian problem with Black Swan, the underlying sexist message being for a women to fully give into her desires would be to destroy her, for all the strengths to be found in Aronofsky’s 2010 film I remain upset by the perpetuated undercurrent of sexism most overlook in it. Refn seemingly plays off some deep understanding he has of us expecting the same from this film and, without spoiling anything, finds a way of playing into those expectations, using them as tools to increase our anxiety as we are forced to sit in our nervous anticipation for what feels an eternity. Fanning’s perceived fear and paranoia paired with an external world of wild neurotic stimulation is as honest a representation we may ever get on how the dark subtle reality of life is. A reality where those who understand the impossibility of having one’s own strengths lift us out of a life we no longer want to be a part of is certainly as terrifying as it is invigorating, the improbability of pulling it off pushing us in our understanding that we must face the confusing terror of the unknown with steadfast confidence or we will without a doubt be destroyed in the flames of our desires. Only a handful of films have ever been able to touch on the double-standards of beauty, this may be the most honest. There is a risk of taking the experience as mere hyperbole, but it cuts much deeper than that as honesty often does.
To watch The Neon Demon on some laptop or in a living room with your friends talking over it would be an atrocious mistake both to yourself and to the idea of art in general so go see it in the theater, unless you enjoyed Independence Day: Resurgence or have an extensive knowledge of Zac Efron movies, in which case I am confused as to why you would have read as many words as you just did to get to this sentence; having assumed you hold a serious disposition against the written language and probably spend a good portion of the day memorizing sports stats so you and your blockhead friends can have something to talk about, this film is certainly not for you. There is a line in the sand between art and pacification, some people seem only to need a viewing experience to fill the void of wasted time in their lives, others such as myself have no time or respect for being coddled. If I’m not feeling challenged intellectually, if I’m not learning to see the external conflicts we lack the words to directly make sense out of in a way to help diagnose the problem, then the experience is garbage. It is a shame to live in an era of Captain America sequels and Ghostbuster remakes when we have so little time left to figure this thing out, at least Refn and a handful of others are bold enough to help us make sense of it all in their own fucked-up way.