Classic Review: The Neon Demon (2016)

Since I’ve started this site, I’ve written a lot of reviews. In case you missed some of my earlier ones, I would like to share an older review of “The Neon Demon” which originally appeared here.

Jesse (Elle Fanning) moves to Los Angeles just after her 16th birthday to launch a career as a model. The head of her agency tells the innocent teen that she has the qualities to become a top star. Jesse soon faces the wrath of ruthless vixens who despise her fresh-faced beauty. On top of that, she must contend with a seedy motel manager and a creepy photographer. As Jesse starts to take the fashion world by storm, her personality changes in ways that could help her against her cutthroat rivals.

I am familiar with director Nicolas Winding Refn, not because I’ve seen any of his films but rather because I haven’t seen his films. I don’t think I’ve been recommended a film more than one of Refn’s films, Drive. According to many people I know, it is one of the best films of 2011. I have to admit that I am yet to see Drive but this film, also directed by Refn, would be the next best thing.

Very early on, it’s hard not to notice the film’s style. It’s look is very unique from its overall aesthetic, from the way it was shot, and the soundtrack. This is definitely something that doesn’t come along all the time. When it comes to films like this, their style can sometimes combat the substance and sometimes it can overpower it. Great films find a sort of balance between the two but this one failed to do so. At certain times, its aesthetic was very beautiful but at others, if often distracted from the film’s plot. Its most distracting aspect had to be the score and the soundtrack which was perhaps a little too dependent on synthesizer-type music. This tended to overpower a lot of the film’s dramatic/suspenseful moments.

The film follows a beautiful young 16 year old girl named Jesse’s (Fanning) rise from a relative unknown to a modelling star. On her way to the top, she must contend with a pair of jealous models named Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), an obsessed makeup artist named Ruby (Jena Malone) and a shady motel manager named Hank (Keanu Reeves). The story doesn’t really go too far in terms of Jesse’s journey but establishes her as a disrupting force within the Los Angeles modeling industry. She is given countless opportunities due to the fact that everyone becomes suddenly infatuated by her and her beauty. This rise in popularity has made fellow models jealous and resentful of her recent success.

This ill will was evident but did not seem to go anywhere. What brought this down was the lack of any character development for any of the characters here. Every character was shallow and underdeveloped since the film failed to establish any of the character’s internal motivations, leaving us only with whatever was on the surface. This made it difficult to ever connect with any of the characters or even care about them, not even the main character, Jesse. Out of all the characters, hers stood out the most, for the wrong reasons. The point of her character is to be out of place but Fanning herself felt out of place here. This wasn’t entirely her fault, however, as the writing behind her character wasn’t that great.

This made it frustrating to watch her at times as Jesse was a mostly subdued character but she would often show spurts of ambition which does make sense but did also feel out of place because it didn’t fit with the rest of her behavior in the film. Despite all of that, the first 2/3 of the film was decent since it still had some semblance of a plot with some occasional artistic bits thrown in. These artistic bits were great for the most part but some, approximately 1/4 of them, did not work as some just were just odd. Others may understand it and/or like it more (more than I did) but the film’s style will not be for everyone.

The film fell apart during its last third. This was the part of the film when the plot changed drastically. Coincidentally, this was when things stopped making sense. The first 2/3 also had these moments but there were a lot fewer. The final scenes absolutely made no sense and were often ridiculous. Without giving anything away, the film takes a darker turn here but this direction did not work at all and used just for the sake of being used which made all of it come off as forced. The end was the worst example of this. The acting here was okay but just lacked any energy for some reason which made it almost robotic. The dialogue was also okay but was not too overly original in that its depiction of female relationships may not be the most realistic.

Overall, this film offers a unique aesthetic experience but that isn’t enough as it unfortunately doesn’t offer much of anything else.

Score: 6/10

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