If only Nicolas Winding Refn were as intent on my liking his films as I was.
The first few scenes of Neon Demon offer the richness of experience that, as it seems, only Nicolas Winding Refn is capable of delivering. The protagonist (Elle Fanning), a gorgeous aspiring model from small-town Georgia, glides wide-eyed through the streets of LA in a red Mustang, driven by her new (and soon-to-be-ex-) boyfriend. America’s Next Top Model, after crossing America’s Former Top Model, comes home to a puma, prowling about her thrashed motel room. A haggard-looking Keanu Reeves strides out of the dingy, blue-lit motel lobby to smoke a cigarette in the red light of the Motel 6 sign. Indeed, this was quite something. Was Neon Demon going to be what Only God Forgives never was—the movie that could rival Drive?
Sadly, it was not going to be that movie. As the film ran on, the vivid transitioned into the absurd. I was expecting the plot to thicken, but it never thickened. I was expecting the characters to develop, but they never developed. Instead, city streets, fashion shows, and eminently-quotable conversations gave way to gleefully-violent slasher film antics. And I was left scratching my head.
Where did all of the elegance of the first half of the film go—and why did it have to go wherever it went?
The outcome of the film says a lot about its director. Winding Refn has the talent to make a beautiful, meaningful, whole film. But he chooses not to use it—almost out of spite. He evokes the college student who’s a bit too gifted for his own good. He could excel in school, sports, and hobbies. Instead, he throws it away for booze and indolence, and just does okay in school. And it’s all because of the bit of spite he holds towards the world. He could give it his all, but he doesn’t have it in him to go that far.
Here, people might argue that the second half of the film wasn’t all that bad. It was art, after all, or some sort of interpretive statement about the fashion industry, or a parody or satire. However, this doesn’t change the fact that, for me at least, the film felt as empty as an LA fashionista’s heart.
Neon Demon received mixed reviews. At its premier at Cannes Film Festival, audience members literally shouted at the screen. A heckler yelled “TRASH!!” in Spanish. Others wrote five star reviews. When the credits rolled, Neon Demon got both boos and a standing ovation, simultaneously. Verge Magazine asked, Is Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest really good or really bad?
In fact, it’s both. It’s really good, for what it could have been, and really bad, for what it wasn’t. It comes down to generosity. Winding Refn is a great director, but he’s not always a generous one. I think that’s why Neon Demon left me wanting.