I have been looking forward to this for some time, since the first trailer was released. I have limited experience with Nicolas Winding Refn’s (NWR) work, with having watched Drive and only partially watching Valhalla Rising. I know there are many who find his movies and his directorial style to be a near master craft in filmmaking, but that isn’t what attracted me to the film – at least not the name alone. The visuals presented in the trailer were incredible with perfectly beating music and starring someone I rather enjoy in film.
I had a feeling I was going to watch a Modeling industry version of Showgirls…but is that what I got?
I mentioned before that NWR’s work is pretty universally lauded from a critical point of view. So the newer trailers tell me with dozens of outlets reporting how impressive it is. I consider even how Every Frame a Painting talked about one of his major films Drive. Check the link later, it is absolutely worth the watch. Because of this I was looking for his usage of the camera in the movie and found that he was doing many of these same techniques through the film now that I knew to look for them. While I usually talk technicals later, it’s important here as the director is defined by his technical skill. Image and sound are as one through the movie. Every beat of the music is as important as every frame of the film. Unlike many current directors NWR brings the medium of film to bear with all it can bring.
He uses sound.
He uses the music.
He moves…or doesn’t move the camera.
He goes wide when others go in.
He goes in when others go wide.
I am not suggesting that we need more directors like him, not fully anyway. I think we need directors who really look at the craft work of the film. The movie is as much a work of art as it is an hour and fifty minutes of entertainment. I found many of the images presented me in the movie provocative and informing of a story not told. Light and Dark and how that is used run from opening credit to final. It was truly impressive as a piece of art. Now, this is not to say that art is going to be equally appreciated. There were a handful of scenes that were audibly or visually uncomfortable, if not disturbing to some, for what is inferred or otherwise portrayed. Others, I may not have fully appreciated for everything that happened there.
Let’s talk story. Refn is director, story credit, and screenplay credit. Refn had work on the screenplay with the hands of Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, who are largely unknown with little to no work behind them. In and of itself the story is a simple one. There is little meat to it from a complexity or arc point of view, some of the subtext is a little too on the nose and more just text. There are plenty of depths to the characters however, but most falls on the actors and director to bring those out. The dialogue, and again, story are relatively straight forward.
Acting wise? Holy hell. Elle Fanning (Super 8, Maleficent, Twixt) delivers and incredibly complex performance as the young ingénue Jesse. The film must be carried by the 18 year old actress and she does so beautifully. There is a lot of maturity to her acting that many her age, and face it many older, do not deliver. This isn’t to say the rest of the actors don’t show up, because they all do. Jena Malone (Hunger Games, Sucker Punch) as Ruby must deliver an equally complex part and does so. She’s hard to tear your eyes away from on screen in any work she is in and that doesn’t change here. The other two main actors; Abbey Lee (Fury Road’s The Dag), as Sarah, and Bella Heathcote (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Dark Shadows) as Gigi have to bring their A game for this movie and do so. At first glance the performance seems easy, but there’s nuance to it that is worth watching for. Supporting actors, such as Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Desmond Harrington, and Alessandro Nivola turn up and show up, but have little to do.
Now…let’s be clear here. The acting is superb. The story is ok. Cliff Martinez soundtrack is inspired. The technical aspects are really well done for those who look; but the movie does have flaws. Much as I found with Drive it plods at an uneven pace and lacks something in it’s execution. For a word – bite. I think I wanted, or expected, something to happen that didn’t. In retrospect I shouldn’t have considering the past body of work, but I did anyway. Additionally there is a problematic aspect to the film that I can only put in a spoiler box at the bottom. I know that this problematic aspect was intentional, or I believe it was; with that intent to create the discomfort and realize…well. Yeah. Still problematic.
The Neon Demon is everything that was promised in the trailer if you are a fan of Refn’s work. If you are unfamiliar with his movies, I might suggest Drive, Only God Forgives, or Valhalla Rising to understand what you are getting into. The acting is amazing, the artistry in each frame is evident. I was thinking about two of my long distance friends the entire film wondering what they would think of it having modeled before and knowing they will appreciate the film. Rather hoping they comment on the Facebook side of things after they see it.
The pacing and overall arc of the plot however, I think we’re less than what I needed from the movie.
Should you see it?
If you like Refn. Yes. If you are someone in the modeling industry, I am really curious to your take. Artistic film lover – must see. Film student or future director? Yes. Otherwise, you can wait for the comfort of your home and enjoy just as much.
EDIT: Friday 7:55 AM – In thinking more on this – this movie is what I did need. BUT it benefits from discussion and thought. So if you do see it, prepare to discuss! It’s worth it.
Will I buy it?
Unsure. It’s a solid low maybe. Bargain bin blu-ray perhaps? Yes! There are visuals worth watching and dissecting. I think I need to see it again.
Rollover to Read
Ok, one of the major themes of the film is the predatory nature of LA, Hollywood, and overall competition between people in a small field. No issues there. The issue, that is problematic, the 18 year old Fanning is playing 16 year old Jesse. At 18 she’s not the issue, the character is and how she is sexualized by the camera, and some of the characters. There are going to be people out there who don’t care, or know, the actress is 18. They will enjoy all too much the idea of the 16 year old being put up as a sexual thing. This is not a matter of the empowerment of the character Jesse, or her own choices to be what she is, but how that is film and what is filmed.
I could be way off base and am open to education here, but it was uncomfortable. Intentionally so, I know. The point is to show the fact how sexualized models can be, regardless of age. The point is to show that “the Industry ” doesn’t care either. I get it. I don’t know that there is another way to illustrate that right now, but I feel strongly enough that I need to write it as a potential trigger warning.