8 July 2016

Film Review - The Neon Demon (2016)

If nothing else, Nicolas Winding Refn certainly has the ability to imbue his films with a nice sense of sleaziness and an enticing noir-ish tone. It’s something that has stood him in pretty good stead with his B-movie/art house crossovers and given him, in the shape of Drive and Bronson, some mainstream credibility. I have always liked his work on Drive but it’s fair to say that plenty of my friends and colleagues do not, with “style over substance” being trotted out as a repeated criticism. Watching his new offering, The Neon Demon, I’m beginning to feel like some of the criticism was not entirely misplaced. There’s something happening here, a repeat of that great eerie sense of claustrophobia Refn has crowbarred into his previous work, and yet much of the Neon Demon feels flat, listless and glaringly under-written.

Jesse (Elle Fanning) is an aspiring young model making her way to the concrete jungle of Los Angeles and the cut-throat bitchiness of the high-end modelling scene. Arriving with little to no fanfare, she begins to cultivate a reputation as “the next big thing”, something that does not go down well with the established models who have fought tooth and nail for their chance to stand in the spotlight.

Tone is clearly King to Refn and, with the help of a typically excellent Cliff Martinez score and bleeding neon-lit visuals, he succeeds in creating a seedy, atmospheric picture that almost feels like it’s moist with sweat and anticipation. The problem is the sense of anticipation never really builds to anything beyond some good early scenes of claustrophobia and verbal sparring. Characters take a backseat to mood and the pushing of a sordid sense of mugginess. Fanning’s doe-eyed schoolgirl turns up naive and regresses into something approaching a cardboard cut-out. Other characters appear only to react to the most basic stimuli, like enemies in an early-90s platform game.

The most memorable moment, and certainly the scene that will stick in audiences’ minds, comes about two-thirds in when Refn appears to push the panic button and Jena Malone fucks a corpse. It’s almost as though his moody fashion-based psycho drama is beginning to flag and he hastily re-tools into horror. The glamorous body horror comes thick and fast in the final third but feels for all the world like the death throes of something that hasn’t quite hit its mark.

As a critique of the fashion industry this feels less useful than even Zoolander. Refn is approaching a crossroads and a choice to be known as a master of mood who just missed the mark with this one, or a man who has played his joker one too many times.

★★1/2 | Chris Banks

Drama, Horror, Thriller | USA, 2016 |18 | 1h 58min | Icon Film Distribution | Cinemas 8th July 2016 (UK) | Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn | Elle Fanning, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Jena Malone.

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