When a writer/director starts labeling the title screen of his films with artfully arranged initials, it’s a bad sign. NWR (a.k.a. Nicolas Winding Refn) has become arrogantly self-aware of his mastery of sound and light. “The Neon Demon” frustrating displays the very best and worst of his talent.
Like all fairy tales, this story has been told many times before. A young girl tries to find fame and fortune in LA, and what comes easy to Jesse (Elle Fanning) creates an all consuming jealousy within the women around her. Her pure and natural beauty shines far brighter than their manufactured looks.
The narrative doesn’t get much deeper than that, but the way this story told is truly fascinating and beautiful. NWR is a master at composing his shots, doused in slowly evolving lights and strobes. The better part of the two hour run time is better described as an experience than a movie in the normal sense of the word. Long stretches of screentime are dedicated solely to images overlaid with a primal pulsating soundtrack. Also unique is the extensive use of “looks.” Entire conversations, thoughts, and motivations are conveyed only through the expressions and “looks” characters give each others. On a technical level it’s an extraordinarily fascinating film.
But, then he goes and ruins it all. Like all good monster movies, the longer you build the tension, and resist showing the beast, the better. Following that concept, in this fantasy world dripping with sex and passion, there isn’t a bit of nudity or copulation until near the very end. When it is finally shown, it’s in the form of necrophilia. It’s a scene that seems too far out in an already far out movie. Immediately following that we’re “treated” to more nudity (alive this time), lesbianic showers, blood baths, metaphors that are more shocking than intelligent, and a surprisingly delicious looking eyeball.
For a film that spends most of its time feeling like it was crafted by the light strokes of an artist, the final act feels like a sledgehammer to the head. “The Neon Demon” crests the peaks of genius, but then quickly plummets into a pile of refuse. It should be required viewing for filmmakers, and avoided by all others.
Note: It’s almost impossible to assign a score to this. There’s so much brilliance in it, but the ending is so shockingly bad, and “wrong.” Filmmakers NEED to see it for a variety of reasons, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen so many walk out during a movie.