✦ ✦ ✦ of five
The phrase “style over substance” is pretty well bankrupt when it comes to art. In dealing with aesthetic mediums, style and substance are inextricable—the substance of Shakespeare would be nothing without the words with which he wrought that substance, the meaning of Under the Skin would be nonexistent without its choices in cinematography, to name but two examples. The people who have no patience with a film unless it’s plain and simple in its meaning—who would strip away all artistic artifice and just get to the point already—are the worst kind of critic.
In light of all that, I don’t want to write The Neon Demon off for being slight, because its artistic elements are second to none—its cinematography and score are easily the best of 2016 thus far. However, I can’t get over the nagging feeling that those artistic elements aren’t there for anything—or rather, they’re there for something, but that something is so slight and indeed banal that the grandiosity of the manner in which director Nicolas Winding Refn chooses to convey it is almost humorously arrogant. It’s there right from the opening credits, in which the initials NWR are prominently emblazoned below every title card—The Neon Demon is a work of art, but it’s also an ego trip, one in which the director’s ambitions exceed his profundity.
Refn wants the world of his film to be a sort of Mulholland Dr. for the new decade, a nightmarish hellscape that tears down the world of fame and glamour, but he possesses neither Lynch’s sense of humor nor sense of humanity. Mulholland Dr. is certainly ambitious in its goals, but it balances this with a midnight-movie atmosphere of schlock and absurdity that restrains its director’s artistic vision from becoming an Oh-So-Serious sermon. It also absolutely depends on its cast, especially Naomi Watts and her ability to perform a gradual slide from Stepford-wife-perfect caricature to damaged, embittered wreck. The Neon Demon, on the other hand, has absolutely no sense of humor about its increasingly absurd take on the world of modeling—its overlap with Hannibal in terms of subject matter and cannibalism-as-metaphor serves only to emphasize how important the black humor of the television show is and how much it’s missed here.
Worse than that, however, is its decision to spend its entire runtime with each of the characters in a relatively static, emotionless state. Elle Fanning is a truly gifted actress, which is why it’s so painful to say that her character, the protagonist Jesse, could have been played by anyone—the same goes for Abbey Lee, who was arresting in her supporting role in Mad Max: Fury Road and is utterly wasted here. Through a self-important screenplay and what I can only assume is Refn’s direction, these two and nearly all of the other performers are trapped into giving flat line readings and static smiles for nearly two hours. A breakdown from this sterility into something more human, or the inverse, would have made this stilted quality mean something emotionally—as is it’s simply dull. A movie that’s about the damaging effects of the fashion industry can’t begin with its characters at the same point they are when they reach the end, but that’s exactly what Refn does.
The only exceptions to the above are Keanu Reeves, who breaks type as an over-the-top shitheel who runs the motel Jesse stays at and is clearly very much enjoying himself, and Jena Malone, whose smile-plastered makeup designer does indeed mirror Mulholland Dr. in her gradual unraveling. They are bright spots in an otherwise joyless exercise of smashing the audience over the head with the rather banal thematic statement “The fashion industry will chew you up and spit you out,” this metaphor eventually turning literal in unintentionally comedic fashion. (I will note that more movies should feature lovingly shot necrophilia—the obnoxious people who’d spent the entirety of my showing talking to each other walked right out of the movie.)
All this said, I can’t give the movie anything less than a three-of-five rating, because while it’s undeniably arrogant and egomaniacal to pull out all the aesthetic stops on such a slight screenplay, pull them Refn does, and it’s glorious. Nathasha Braier’s cinematography delivers everything that the movie’s title promises, bathing each frame in frozen blasts of harsh blues and reds—one early sequence turns the film into a flipbook, colored strobes against a black background recreating and obliterating the characters’ visages frame by frame, and is nothing short of jaw-dropping. This pulsing frigidity is matched by Cliff Martinez’ synthesizer score, reminiscent of It Follows‘ soundtrack—simultaneously lush and dead, rich and completely artificial, it fully commits to sonically communicating everything Refn wanted to say with his screenplay. Art direction, production design, and costuming are, naturally, second to none.
The overwhelmingly good and the disappointingly bad collide to form a whole that’s by turns compelling and vapid, repulsive in ways both intentional and unintentional. One could argue that that’s the point—the film’s very shallowness is a reflection of its thematic concerns—but where American Psycho recognizes, expertly utilizes, and ultimately undermines its narrator’s banality, The Neon Demon is fully convinced of its own deep importance. What we’re left with is a mediocre screenplay filmed with artistic perfection, populated with actresses who at times elevate their material but are often directed into a corner.
I can’t write off The Neon Demon, nor can I give it a fully negative review, because it is one of the most visually and aurally engrossing movies of 2016. I only wish those arresting qualities had been placed within an equally arresting context. As is, it’s a tale told by an egomaniac, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing—but what entrancing sound and fury.