If Nicolas Winding Refn’s films were as emotionally engaging as they are visually lavish, they could be profound pieces of work. Unfortunately, as enthralling as The Neon Demon is as a piece of audiovisual entertainment, it just feels too empty to fall in love with. Its manufactured momentum ultimately pays off in a striking third act that will be worth the wait for some, but not for many.
For much of its runtime, The Neon Demon is, on the surface, a story as old as its setting (Los Angeles). Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a young model getting gradually corrupted by a superficial industry drenched in hedonism and contempt. Everyone she meets acknowledges her one distinguishing quality: her beauty. Everyone wants to take it from her, which is tricky with something so slippery. So they try in various ways, whether by exploiting her for profit or taking advantage of her sexually. Or by much more literal methods.
Jesse is mysterious. She’s not a character we can invest in because she’s mostly passive and apparently unmotivated. Her beauty may be all she has, but it gets her whatever she wants and more than she bargained for. We don’t learn much about her background or ambitions, and are expected to make substantial inferences with limited information. A similar approach worked well with Gosling’s character in Drive but falls flat here. The engrossing relationships, emotional intensity, and story-driven conflict are lacking, leaving an impressive mountain of style but too few footholds of substance.
While the story feels thin, Refn imbues the film with pulsing cinematic tension, giving it a physical trajectory like a horror movie. Every expected scene – the audition, the photoshoot, the runway, the seduction – comes loaded with atmosphere and anxiety and vague, looming danger. Creative and crisp editing, cinematography, and sound design bend banal story elements into new experiences. And a brilliant soundtrack from Cliff Martinez injects so much mood into every moment that you think it might burst at the seams. But since the tone is manufactured through craft rather than coming organically out of character and story, it doesn’t feel as authentic or powerful as it should. It feels manipulative.
When the tension finally does burst into a grisly payoff stacked with startling visuals, we’re treated to a gripping, gut wrenching sequence of horror and an equally unsettling epilogue. But unfortunately, the suspense doesn’t last long enough to justify the deliberate pace that built up to it and we don’t care enough about Jesse to root for her.
Perhaps Refn’s approach was too anchored in abstract themes like youth, beauty, and narcissism to allow for adequate character development. Maybe his protagonists tend to be one-named or unnamed entities rather than relatable individuals in order to allow the viewer to project himself onto them. But usually the opposite is more effective; viewers see themselves in real, deep, complex characters, and invest themselves vicariously. With a few tweaks to the experience, this might have been a much more thrilling exercise.