Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Neon Demon


   I'm a massive fan of Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn's work. Drive is one of my absolute favorite movies, and Bronson is completely fantastic. I've seen most of his stuff, including Valhalla Rising, Only God Forgives and a couple of the Pusher movies. Even when I strongly dislike one of his movies (i.e. Only God Forgives) it's still an interesting experience and one worth discussing with other movie nerds. I feel like this is where The Neon Demon is at. It's never more than the sum of it's parts, but holy hell what parts it has.

   The one aspect of Refn's films that never fails to grab me is the visuals. The Neon Demon is a gorgeous looking movie, not unlike only... all of his other movies. Except The Neon Demon lives up to it's name in several ways. The movie seems constantly awash in diffused neon light. When it's not, it's any other light that contributes to the overall aesthetic of 'dangerous beauty'. This movie feels like a David Lynch tale. An almost retro cautionary tale about the fashion industry and how it goes through models like a meat grinder.

   The whole business of image is built on the blood, sweat and tears of young women. This movie is about a specific one who's naturally beautiful, which is almost unthinkable in this world where plastic surgery and excessive cosmetics are considered almost essential. This brings me to my first problem with the movie, and it might very well be a completely subjective one. Elle Fanning plays the lead, Jesse. She's a very pretty girl, but she's by no means striking. The movie is written for a girl who could apparently rival Aphrodite in a looks contest. Again, Fanning is very pretty, but characters react to her like she's the most gorgeous girl they've ever seen in their entire life.

   She leaves characters breathless and choked up, and I don't get it. Some of the other girls in the movies would've fit the role better I think. But again, this might very well just be me, but who knows? Either way, it really took me out of the movie on multiple occasions. I don't think any girl could really shoulder that kind of role, but Fanning did her best. Not to mention, it's hard to say looks aren't everything in a movie that's core premise is basically: looks are everything. Yet, despite that, Fanning's acting is absolutely fantastic.

   She has amazing range in the movie, from nervous small town girl, to dangerous femme fatale character. Most of the other characters in the movie are fairly one note, with the possible exception of Ruby, played by Jena Malone. Everyone fits an archetype. Dangerously obsessed supermodel, creepy photographer, sleazy landlord, altruistic not-boyfriend. The movie feels like the bastard child of Fame and Black Swan, and I'm fine with that. The movie just never gets as crazy as I hoped it would. I found it fairly predictable with few exceptions.

   It has fantastic atmosphere and the movie itself is positively electric, but it never reaches greatness. It has all the style and artfulness of a music video, or an expensive perfume commercial and just as much substance. This is the same problem I had with Only God Forgives. The movie invites analysis and deep thought, but honestly, it's rather shallow. 'Neon Demon especially so. This story is so familiar to anyone who's even had a brief conversation about the fashion industry that the resolution of the movie should surprise nobody. The movie's strange and fantastical visuals are just that. They're fake symbolism that goes nowhere.

   So much of the movie feels blank enough to project your own meaning onto it. It's like the blue curtains story. The teacher insists that the author was referring to his own melancholy mood by specifying that the curtains in a specific scene were blue. The author insists that they're blue because he just likes the color blue. Damn. This is where I'm at with The Neon Demon. Is this symbolic? Is that? No. It's just pretty. Then, all we're left with is the characters and the story, and both are just a collection of familiar archetypes. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that, but... there kind of is. The Neon Demon isn't a bad movie, it's just an overly familiar one.

   I enjoyed it, I enjoyed writing about it. I'd even own it, but it's not great, and it's not all that shocking either. I liked it, but I wanted to love it, and I just can't.

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