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7 Reasons Why “The Neon Demon” Is A Huge Disappointment

22 November 2016 | Features, Other Lists | by Nick Bugeja

most disappointing movies 2016

Nicholas Winding Refn is a director with a very fixed vision. Some people will inevitably be in awe of it. Others may reject it as ‘style over substance’. Refn’s most recent film, The Neon Demon, is an attempted examination of the modelling scene in L.A.

While this has certainly been done before, Refn calls upon his distinct approach to visual filmmaking in order to viscerally expose the underlying resentment, envy and competition inherent within the modelling fraternity.

Refn isn’t wrong about this, and his film starts off promisingly and engagingly. However, he makes a number of missteps that prove catastrophic to the film’s overall success.


7. It lacks a coherent narrative


To preface this point, narrative is not an inflexible storytelling device. Indeed, many great films of the last 120 years have either completely dispensed with, or only used narrative sparingly. Although Refn is not renowned for developing long, convoluted narratives, The Neon Demon could have used some kind of reference point to bind its disparate scenes together.

On a very basic level, The Neon Demon follows Jessie (Elle Fanning), a 16-year-old wannabe model through the dark, murky trenches of the L.A modelling scene. Other than this, there is nothing overarchingly holding the film together.

Admittedly, there are recognisable strands that run through the film, such as Jessie’s relationship with Dean (Karl Glusman), but such subplots are insufficient for holding the film together. What ensues is senseless dislocation from Refn’s starting point for the film: i.e. Jessie’s journey.

We are left caught in a kind of vortex that sharply and rapidly throws us from scene to scene in bemusement of the new ways in which Refn tries to keep us engaged in The Neon Demon. Refn’s attempts are in vain, as we are constantly confronted by preposterous set pieces that intensify right up until the film’s desired closure.


6. It is too long


The film clocks in at about 2 hours. For a standard film, this is by no means bloated. But, in view of Refn’s absence of a conventional narrative, the running time is much too long. On a surface level, this leads us to a disengagement with the film’s third act, and a tangible disinterest with the ideas Refn wants to relentlessly throw at us.

Not to be economical, but effective, Refn should have cut the whole third act. This wouldn’t have adversely affected the film, but rather invigorated it. He should have chosen to end the film approximately when Ruby (Jena Malone), and Jessie’s modelling rivals disconcertingly watch on as Jessie lies, twitching in an empty swimming pool, edging closer to her death.

All of the ideas that Refn had precedingly developed- the power of looking, insecurity, vanity and the like- would have been nicely rounded off with such a grim conclusion. Viewers, while perhaps a little perturbed, could have left the cinema blossoming with Refn’s close examination of the ills society in which appearance and beauty is prioritised above everything else.

Instead, Refn mistakenly chose to indulgently march on, taking a huge risk in prolonging the film. This risk, as evident to most of us, didn’t pay off as The Neon Demon enters territory where the hyperreality of the film descends into unbridled chaos and messiness. The aforementioned ideas were not serviced by this extension of time; but instead thwarted and blurred by the film’s third act.


5. Cast is misused


The Neon Demon is very much a film to be taken by scene by scene. There is an array of characters that pop up to affirm and clarify the film’s message, but the core characters are only Jessie, Ruby, Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee Kershaw). Elle Fanning plays Jessie admiringly; first as an impressionable, modest 16-year-old. As the insidious environment of L.A moulds and shapes Jessie, Fanning competently takes a more stiff, still and scrutinising approach to her character.

Malone seems unsure of her place in the film, playing Ruby without any real presence. Although the character seems to demand different and duplicitous shades, Malone only very broadly captures this. Mostly, she is unconvincing and smothering. Heathcote and Kershaw play two almost identical models, and their job is to cultivate a meaner ‘Mean Girls’ persona. Their scope for performance always feels constrained, but perhaps that is the point.

Somewhat surprisingly, Keanu Reeves appears as the Hotel manager where Jessie is staying. His character is dishevelled and disrespectable, and Reeves never misses a beat. Likewise, Christina Hendricks plays an experienced, manipulative beauty scout.

Both of these actors’ performances are highlights in the film, yet Reeves only has a couple of scenes and Hendricks only has one. Refn would have done well to have expanded the importance of these characters, as these two capable performers could have injected some life into what turns out to be a rather lifeless, stagnant film.


4. Refn fails to capitalise on the visual stimulation the film seems to promise


The posters and commercial advertising of The Neon Demon are visually striking; often featuring Jessie drenched in blood, lying on a nondescript couch. Tinges of purple surround her from above.

The film does indeed start out this way; with cinematographer Natasha Braier spoiling us with colour saturation on the modelling sets. The early composition of the shots- skilfully balancing the need to capture the subject (often Jessie) and the surrounding aesthetic- impels us towards strong encouragement.

However, once the first act is wrapped up, the film departs from the grandeur of indoor modelling sets and parties. This correlates with a change in cinematography, as Braier’s photography becomes characterised by anaemia and blandness.

From a thematic point of view, perhaps this is validated. As Jessie starts out as our way into the modelling world, we are presented with the ostensible wonderment of it. As we and Jessie become privy to its substantial flaws, a more exposing dullness kicks in. But this is beside the point.

Without the startlingly beautiful photography, Refn’s film carries a lot less intrigue. It loss of visual engagement is fatal; as aesthetic is often Refn’s only weapon as a filmmaker.



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  • Deepesh

    “Note: The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Taste of Cinema”

    I used to think that almost all of the articles of this site are the views of respective author!

  • Have to agree with #1. Exactly my point in the review I wrote some months ago. I think it’s kind of troubling that a line like “Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” is in a movie that has visuals as the most appealing quality.

    Refn either does not realize that he’s reproducing the same thing he criticizes or the line is self conscious and he has a very bad notion of satire.

  • Nikos Ikonomidis

    Altough the points here are valid, I still consider The Neon Demon the best movie this year so far. Surface sometimes is everything and this film kept me mesmerized.The end, however, was somewhat disappointing.

  • Cap

    The Neon Demon felt empty at every fronts. it felt like someone was trying to make a film like Nicholas and failed. simply put it was a shit movie imho.

  • Gill

    Good article. I found The Neon Demon to be quite disappointing. A feast for the eyes and a nibble for the mind, but nothing that resonates on a emotional level. A very cold, distant and aloof film.

    What the hell happened to Refn? He made a string of great films. The Pusher Trilogy, Bronson, Valhalla Rising, Drive. Then Only God Forgives happened, and now this. He used to be one of my favorite directors. Now it seems like he’s crawled up his own arse.

  • Rudi

    I strongly disagree with every single point and I have the feeling the writer completely missed the point. It takes too much space and time to discuss this from A to Z, but I strongly recommend everyone to watch the interview with NWR that’s in the bonus section of the blu-ray. He’s surprisingly open about his intentions and also about how this story about youth (an industry getting ever younger and eventually ‘eating’ itself) is really a story about the entertainment industry and especially about the way movies are consumed nowadays.

    • Gill

      Whatever meaning the director intends, however ‘deep’ the
      film may be, means very little (to me anyway) if the film fails to connect with me as an audience member.

      Anyone can make a ‘deep’ movie. It’s much harder and substantially more impressive to make a film that is both emotionally and/or viscerally engaging AND thought provoking. Refin managed that beautifully with Drive. With The Neon Demon he seemed to ignore perhaps most important element of cinema; a story and/or characters you care about. Without that fundamental element all you have is a bunch of pretty pictures and a theme to ponder, which just doesn’t cut it for me.

      • Rudi

        Well, for me all the things you say that are lacking are actually there, in a very impressive way even.

        • Gill

          Fair enough. I find it really interesting that two people can watch the same movie and have a totally different experience. Cinema is incredible like that. Truly subjective. 🙂

          • Rudi

            That’s also particularly interesting about this movie I think. It has only just been released this year and it already got its own ‘hate’ and ‘love’ post on Taste of Cinema.

            It probably has a huge deal to do with how you approach it and if it catches you. The first time in cinema after two hours I realized I hadn’t even touched my drink, I was totally drawn in by the movie.

  • M.

    ‘Refn’s refusal to retreat from the seriousness of The Neon Demon is a source of great limitation.’ – in the DVD commentary, Refn mentions that the film ‘is a comedy in so many ways’ . so maybe the limitation was in the eye of the viewer/writer? 😉

    • Gill

      That’s genuinely interesting. If he intended this to be a comedy (even a pitch black comedy), I think he completely missed the mark.

      • M.

        I don’t 🙂 then again, guess it depends on one’s kind of humor… his is of the twisted and black variety. some people like it, some people don’t…

      • Carl Edgar Consiglio

        The panther was black.

    • Rudi

      In my opinion it’s quite clear it’s a black comedy, with the emphasis on black. One good example is the scene in which Gigi was almost dying to make a good impression with the cat walk audition, perhaps her last change to get something out of her career that was already dying before it really started. She walked a great audition while the guy wasn’t even watching. It’s very brutal in such a funny way.

  • I was kinda dissapointed from the lack of neon in the film haha, however to say it’s not a visually stunning movie is a whole ton of child molester shit

  • Stephanie Hallberg

    Damn.. you guys really takes the Love and Hate messages literally. 5 days before this article you wrote that Neon Demon is Cinematic Accomplishment.