When a character in your film coughs up a human eyeball, you may have gone too far.
“The Neon Demon,” released in 2016, currently sits at a forgettable 58 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. With scathing review quotes such as “Pretentious and self-indulgent” (James Berardinelli) and “each character is astonishingly boring and unlikable,”(Julia Raban) I wouldn’t fault you for skipping it.
“The Neon Demon” felt like a youngest child in both its self-importance and penchant for shock value over substantive storytelling. Never a director known for his subtlety, Nicolas Winding Refn’s most recent effort is comparable to walking around in an H&M store. Bright colors and loud techno music abound, but the deeper you dig to find some meaning behind the spectacle, the emptier the façade becomes. A shallow dig at the culture of consumerism and vanity infecting the sun-bleached streets of L.A.,where the movie takes place, “The Neon Demon” is like a snake eating its own tail — the perfect example of the very culture it wishes to critique. Don’t misinterpret what I’m saying here; “Neon Demon” is not meant to be satire. With a director who takes himself as seriously as Refn, this film was no doubt meant to be the same type of spellbinding thriller as his hit “Drive.”
Before I continue, I want to make it clear that I am a fan of Refn’s work. I find his direction original and uncompromisingly stylish (a double-edged sword). But, in his own words, Refn is a pornographer. And like any other porno, his movies are all about captivating the viewer for as long as they’ll keep their eyes on the screen.
Sometimes the model works. “Drive” was a beautiful, unflinching encapsulation of raw human emotion. Sure, plenty of moviegoers walked out once they realized that the mismarketed film was an atmospheric character study, not the “Fast and Furious” ripoff its trailers made it out to be, but “Drive” was a movie that meant something. The extreme violence that Ryan Gosling’s character commits during the movie’s runtime holds weight. It leaves a hollow feeling in one’s chest to watch Gosling angrily stomp a man’s head into spaghetti sauce in front of the love of his life. The difference between the violence of Refn’s better movies and that of “The Neon Demon” is that when it’s done well, violence inspires emotion, an empathetic experience with both the victim and the perpetrator, whereas when it’s done poorly, it inspires only revulsion.
If you’re a fan of cinematography, Refn is your man. There’s no disputing that he and his production associates have an almost superhuman ability to simply make things look good. The problem arises when his direction stops at the sensory level, creating a muddled mess of impressive visuals that are almost-but-not-quite symbolism. In a way, “The Neon Demon” did exactly what it was supposed to do. The frustration that I experienced as the movie came to an end, its haunting visuals fading into the rearview mirror and my brain frantically attempting to derive meaning from the madness was, in all likelihood, exactly what Refn was going for. The movie didn’t so much make a statement on the beauty industry as it re-contextualized our lust for the prettiest 1 percent as a type of modern cannibalism (spoiler alert).
My problem lies within his approach. As someone compelled to think out a film after watching it, to find logic in the complexities of a narrative, this movie was a shock to the system. If Kubrick is LSD and Tarantino is cocaine, then Refn is holding your breath for too long —as brief and dangerous an experience as it is a cheap and utterly disappointing one. Pornography is entertainment, not art. And where Refn’s successes transcend their status as pretty pictures strung together into a two-hour runtime, his failures resemble a Lamborghini with no engine — impressive to look at, but painfully lacking in utility.