Review: The Neon Demon (2016) (Style Over Substance?)

the neon demon

“Am I staring?”

‘The Neon Demon’ is unlike any other film you will see this year. Of course, you could say that about any film by Nicolas Winding Refn, such as his last film, ‘Only God Forgives’ (click here for my review of it!). It’s true that his films are (mostly) a triumph of style over substance, but his style is something to behold. From the moment ‘The Neon Demon’ began to the end, I was enraptured by the events that unfolded on the screen. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. I’ve been told that Refn’s films are to be experienced, not analysed. ‘The Neon Demon’ is an experience to lose yourself in. There are failings here and there, but overall I’d say it is Refn’s greatest film yet, one that I’ve struggled to get out of my head since I watched it a few days ago.

The premise isn’t anything new or novel; let’s get that out of the way first. A sixteen year old girl, Jessie, moves to L.A. to become a model. Innocence being lost in the Hell of California is a theme well-trodden. Jessie meets Ruby, a make-up artist by day, a morgue assistant at night. Ruby introduces her to two models, Gigi and Sarah. The latter two are instantly jealous of Jessie’s natural beauty. Jessie finds a little bit of fame and fortune, but things soon begin to unravel as jealousy overcomes Gigi and Sarah…

“I’m not as helpless as I look”

Part-horror, part-fantasy, part-thriller, part mind-f**k, ‘The Neon Demon’ straddles genres just like Refn did with ‘Drive.’ We open on what could either be a murder scene or a particularly grotesque photoshoot. Jessie is lying on a sofa with her throat cut, blood apparently streaming from it. It’s a photoshoot that immediately encapsulates what the film is all about: the juxtaposition of beauty and death, the importance of Jessie’s blood in the central narrative, and innocence being sacrificed in occult rituals. There’s a lurid intrigue running throughout the film that begins with Jessie’s first photoshoot. Be it the intimidating and possibly murderous photographer who turns out the lights during one scene in the film, leaving Jessie naked and vulnerable, or something lurking in Jessie’s bedroom, there’s a streak of horror and thriller that absorbs the viewer.

Jena Malone...a thoroughly disturbing performance!
Jena Malone…a thoroughly disturbing performance!

Is it satire? Refn escapes such a restrained definition by soaking the film in beauty, just like the industry he could be dissecting and critiquing. Looks are not just everything, but the only thing, to paraphrase a character’s words. You could equally apply that to the film and to the model industry. Unlike the natural beauty Jessie, Gigi has had innumerable operations to become beautiful. She openly brags about Dr Andrew and his magical scalpel, at one point telling Jessie that “plastics are just good grooming.” Just like Gigi, Refn has sculpted every scene painstakingly to attain beauty. And beauty he attains. Be it Jessie talking to an admirer in front of the moon or a simple dialogue scene, every second looks exquisite. Surely a film that satirizes the model industry should look grainy and grim?

“Anything worth having hurts a little”

the neon demon 2
The cinematic scene of the year!

I could go into detail about every scene, every repeated motif, every symbolism, but suffice to say, the use of colour, direction and technique is to die for. It’s reminiscent of Aronofsky’s work with ‘Black Swan’, from the liberal use of mirrors to symbolise and personality divided to two colours being used to represent something (black and white for ‘Black Swan’, red and blue in ‘The Neon Demon). Both films represent a filmmaker at the peak of their powers in terms of visual storytelling. Take Jessie’s catwalk scene, for example. She sees the ‘neon demon’ in her mind, an upside down triangle divided into three smaller triangles (and also, of course, a symbol for female genitalia). This is the point where she embraces and is consumed by her beauty, just like Narcissus and the water. In cinematic terms, no scene from any other film comes close to its perfection. But that is one of many.

I don’t think satire is Refn’s aim. It’s a by-product of his work, but what Refn is really aiming for is a fairy tale set in the present day. In that matter, he succeeds almost perfectly. He mixes occult symbols with Illuminati-esque visuals that would make any conspiracy theorist’s head explode. Pyramids and all-seeing eyes are as important to the narrative as the characters. Elle Fanning brings Jessie to life, at first looking ever the shy country girl who’s out of her depth, the transforming into Narcissus, loving herself. Jena Malone, playing Ruby, is the villain of the piece, always causing you to fear what she’s going to do next. The two models play vacuous models brilliantly. Keanu Reeves plays against type, and it works in what could be his best acting since…well, since a long time ago!

(And let me take just a minute to applaud the soundtrack, which is another triumph for Cliff Martinez. I bought the soundtrack as soon as I’d seen the film, and am listening to it right now. He imbues every second with menace, wonder and intrigue. It must be his best work yet!)

“I need to get her out of me”

I won’t spoil the last act for anyone, but suffice to say: it’s a little bit crazy. But it feels like a natural progression for the film, even if it might turn a few stomachs. ‘The Neon Demon’ is Refn’s masterpiece, just like ‘Black Swan’ was Aronofsky’s masterpiece. His creative powers may never be higher or more potent than displayed in this film. The plot is full of intrigue and menace. You won’t quite know where the story is going from one scene to the next. You won’t know if you’re seeing reality or a dream at times. But you’ll know you are witnessing a visual barrage of beauty. Yes, it’s a triumph of style over substance, but isn’t every fairytale? And doesn’t every fairytale have a message, no matter how grotesque the ending may be? Refn faltered with ‘Only God Forgives,’ underestimating the audience’s patience. Here, however, he teases tedium before alighting the screen. It’s a shame it’s only out on limited release, because it is one of the films of the year.

VERDICT: 9/10. Refn’s magnum opus? It may be too early to tell, as he’s got plenty of years left in his career. But ‘The Neon Demon’ sees Refn at the zenith of his creative powers. He’s created a wonderful, viable and powerful fairy tale for the modern age. Satire? Horror? Fantasy? Thriller? Call it anything you like, but watch it as soon as you can!

What did you think of ‘The Neon Demon’? Leave your thoughts below!

Click here for my review of Refn’s ‘Only God Forgives’


18 thoughts on “Review: The Neon Demon (2016) (Style Over Substance?)

  1. Lee Brady July 12, 2016 / 2:30 am

    Writing objective critcism seems like the last angle critics have taken with this so far, and all the better for it. When the audience is given so much interpretation room, subjectivity should prevail! Excited for this finally getting its UK release.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Brendan Bellavia July 12, 2016 / 3:58 am

    Great review! I think too many people criticize the film immediately after they watch it, and don’t give it time to sink in. After watching this, I thought about it for a long time, and realized just how great it was.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. samoliver1123 July 13, 2016 / 7:42 pm

    I’ve read about a certain scene thats quite disturbing, does it add anything to the film? Or is it just shock factor? I’ve not seen the film yet, but very keen to!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hammy Reviews July 13, 2016 / 7:43 pm

      I’m still thinking about whether it is shock factor or whether it adds something to the film. It definitely fits into the narrative, but I can understand why people may think it is unnecessary.
      But I would heartily recommend the film!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. dbmovies September 6, 2016 / 8:27 pm

    I was very open-minded when I decided to watch the Neon Demon, and although I enjoyed the first half of the movie very much, the second half was so preposterous and pretentious I cannot even watch it and wish I never wasted my time on it.

    Liked by 1 person

      • dbmovies September 6, 2016 / 8:44 pm

        I’ve seen Drive and Only God Forgives. The former is my favourite – I gave it 10 out of 10. I am still puzzled how anyone can enjoy the Neon Demon – it had a LOT of style, but its faults are so many, I would think it should have been re-made. The pivotal moment for me was Jessy’s first show – after that it was just the director’s over-indulgence borrowing something from Black Swan, borrowing something from Stoker. Such a muddle.


        • Hammy Reviews September 6, 2016 / 8:49 pm

          Yeah, Drive is a definite 10 out of 10. Think Only God Forgives is his most self indulgent film-The Neon Demon is a balance between the two!
          Can see why people wouldn’t like it though, as a few people walked out of the cinema when I saw it!

          Liked by 1 person

          • dbmovies September 6, 2016 / 8:54 pm

            They walked out, really? Uh…It is not as bad as this, honestly. I do think though that Refn should not forget the substance of his films – some thought-provoking element, some complete unpredictability to go with all this style – this would have made the movie great. He had Gosling in Drive and did not write the script himself.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Hammy Reviews September 6, 2016 / 9:50 pm

              I think if there is plenty of style, then the substance is subjective: you can make as little or as much as you want out of it. But I’d agree that it was style over substance, but sometimes that is fine by me!
              I’d say The Neon Demon was a twisted fairy tale…

              Liked by 1 person

            • Hammy Reviews September 6, 2016 / 9:51 pm

              And by the way, thanks for reminding me about Stoker! One film that I need to rewatch asap

              Liked by 1 person

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