Movie Review: The Neon Demon


Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

Writers: Nicolas Winding RefnMary LawsPolly Stenham

Stars: Elle Fanning, Christina Hendricks, Keanu ReevesJena Malone

Verdict: Everyone who can stomach it should see it


It’s really hard to review a Nic Refn film. Like if you like Nic Refn you’ll love this film it’s got all of his little Refnisms that made me love Drive so much. It’s also a surreal bleak fairytale of a horror film, other critics have cited films like The Company of Wolves, Refn himself has cited Suspiria and Under the Skin as inspiration, the Suspiria influence is really not hard to see, Suspiria being about an American balet dancer coming to Germany and being metaphorically consumed by a heart of darkness there, and The Neon Demon being about a small town girl of only 16 coming to the wolf den that is the L.A. fashion industry, or rather how Refn imagines it, or rather, maybe better, how Refn and his two female playwright co-writers Mary Laws, (Preacher), and Polly Stenham, (Playhouse Presents), wish to portray the hollow evilness that lies in that industry. 

The reason I bring up the two female co-writers is because Sunday Times film critic Kate Muir called The Neon Demon Refn ‘Mansplaining’ the fashion industry which is wrong on so SO many levels. In part, because the thing that Refn seems more interested in with The Neon Demon is less what the horror represents but more the horror itself. He’s always been a filmmaker concerned with using style to emphasise emotion rather than subtext, which isn’t necessarily better or worse but it’s just something else, other reasons later. I think Refn thought of the evils of the fashion industry then thought ‘oooh that’d make a good horror film’, and I’m not going to lie, I’ve done similar things before. The thing about horror films is that maybe more than other genres you don’t need substance, you just need to get scared because often it’s the scares themselves, the motivation of the filmmakers to make the film, and why it scares you that contains the substance in itself. Just think of Alien, or The Babadook, or A Nightmare on Elm Street. When my mum watched the trailer and I told her about the film she said ‘I hope he shows it for the horrible thing it is’, and the film does, but I’m sure to Refn that’s completely incidental. 

That being said, thinking of these sort of Suspiria, Black Swan, and some slasher films, will not give you an idea of what this film is like. In the same way as when Kevin Smith made Red State he wasn’t necessarily making a horror film but making a Kevin Smith/Nicolas Winding Refn horror film. Neither of which are particularly scary, and despite the fact that it’s a hell of a lot better than his recent horror efforts, or recent horror efforts in general, Red State is a lot worse, a lot worse, than The Neon Demon. The Neon Demon doesn’t have the normal structure for these kind of things, it doesn’t have the same pacing or any of that, and in the same way as Only God Forgives, it completely turns the conventions of the genre it’s in on its head in a way that actually feels really fresh. When I first watched the film in cinemas I was slightly wrong-footed by it, I wasn’t expecting how the film goes and I wanted more from certain parts but now going in the second viewing, knowing what to expect, (you will never know what to expect on a first watch of this film so don’t even try), these perceived flaws, bothered me a lot less. I still don’t think it’s perfect, I could do with being more scared, but it was incredibly atmospheric in a way I quite enjoyed, and it’s still not Drive because well very few things are but it is very very good, it’s not necessarily a great horror film but it’s still a very very good, hypnotic, not for everyone, but incredibly absorbing horror influenced fairy tale. 

It’s Lost River with teeth, and I actually like Lost River.

The Cliff Martinez score is fantastic, everyone’s said it, and if it doesn’t win the oscar, and in a film like this it’s possible, it will be a travesty, it’s also ownderfully shot in a way that actually it just follows really basic rules of cinematography really, really well, but it produces buituful expresionistic images so who cares. In terms of acting, Jena Malone is a revelation, really, really good, Elle Fanning is interesting and it’s a conflicting, confusing performance in a way that really, really works, Keanu Reeves is threatening and gruff in a way Reeves is very good at but very under appreciated for, (bar John Wick), and the two supporting model figures, sort of Satan’s demons, (portrayed by Bella Heathcroft and Abbey Lee), are both very good. Nic has a way of making anybody look like a robot alien person, these two especially, all the models look like they’ve been made in the uncanny valley, it’s quite an achievement actually. 

Which brings me onto my next paragraph, I may not be particularly happy with the politics of sexuality in the film, the portrayal of lesbians is problematic, at best, but then again so is the portrayal of straight people, then again so is the portrayal of sexuality in general. I am really happy though with the substance that is in The Neon Demon, I have been affected by someone close to me dealing with an eating disorder, and this is a film that praises natural beauty over starving yourself stupid and getting yourself cut up and abused by a scalpel to seem beautiful, and I love it.

I’m also just really glad this film exists for Refn. I feel like after the blockbuster that was Drive, Refn needed to make Only God Forgives if anything just to dispell that expectation of making another Drive, Only God Forgives isn’t perfect but what’s important is that it’s a Nicolas Winding Refn film, and a really Nicolas Winding Refn film, so now he’s been able to go away and make his own film on his own terms and now he can return to us reborn, entered into a new phase of his career, and frankly I can’t wait


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