|Image courtesy of Broad Green Pictures.|
Refn has long been a director to watch, from his early "Pusher" films and the stylishly disturbing prison movie "Bronson" to 2011's "Drive," a masterful crime thriller that pushed the filmmaker to the top of the pack of the most exciting filmmakers working around the world.
So, it was a bit of a letdown when his follow up to that film, which won him the Best Director prize at Cannes, was the visually stylish but otherwise unimpressive "Only God Forgives," an unequivocal bust. And it's even further disappointing that rather than having regrouped, his latest - "The Neon Demon" - is an even further trip down that rabbit hole.
The picture, a giallo-styled horror movie set in the world of modeling, is filled with enticing images as one would expect in a film by Refn, whose work is always stylized and beautifully shot. But "Neon" is both pretty and pretty vacant - an example of style over substance in which the central themes - one of which being the idea that the fashion world will eat you alive, a concept that is eventually realized in the most obvious of ways - disappear completely when they're not beating you over the head.
In the picture, an ethereal waif named Jesse (Elle Fanning) has arrived in the type of Los Angeles that only exists in movies like these to break into the world of modeling. Due to her shyness and young age (she's 16, but is told to tell people that she is three years older), Jesse often appears like a doe in the headlights and all of the town's sleazy denizens are quick to take advantage - a creepy photographer who wants to shoot her nude, an even sleazier designer who makes nasty comments about his models right in front of them, a makeup artist (Jena Malone) who appears friendly but isn't and several slightly older models who are jealous of Jesse's natural talent.
There's also a seemingly pointless and mostly just unpleasant subplot involving Jesse's stay at a seedy motel, which is run by a creep (Keanu Reeves) who is holding a young runaway hostage in the room next to Jesse's, where the aspiring model can hear the underage girl being raped and beaten. There's also a sequence during which Reeves' sleazeball character sneaks into Jesse's room one night and places a long knife down her throat in a sexually suggestive manner. That the rape of young, underage women is being used here as a means for creating tension in a thriller such as this one is, at the very least, a poor choice.
However, Jesse's stay at the motel provides the film's most hypnotically surreal moment during a scene in which the young woman finds a mountain lion prowling around her room and she enlists Reeves and a motel worker to chase it away. There's another great moment early in the picture when Malone's character invites Jesse to a nightclub, which is exactly the type you'd expect in a Refn film - strobe lights, neon tinted walls, throbbing music sung by some young ingenue and a sense of danger in the air.
It's too bad that these scenes are more the exception than the rule in "The Neon Demon." Refn is undoubtedly a talent - "Drive" is, for my money, the best crime movie of this decade so far and I also dug his "Pusher" trilogy and "Bronson" - but he's currently not putting his abilities to their best use. "Only God Forgives" and "The Neon Demon" are stylish genre exercises, but there's not much else underneath their glittering surfaces. The filmmaker is also heavily inspired by genre and filmmakers exploring darker terrain and I think his talents could put him in the same class as some of his influences. But "The Neon Demon," much like its predecessor, is a step backward.