Jesse is a young aspiring model from a small town. She is new to the big city, but she soon lands a modeling contract with a big agency. Jesse’s quick rise in the modeling industry and her rare beauty make the other models jealous. Jealousy can quickly turn to obsession. In a world where beauty isn’t everything – it’s the only thing – the most gorgeous and cutthroat will be the ones to survive.
Neon Demon has a relatively simple story that many models at various stages of their career can likely relate to. You get multiple different perspectives: the fresh meat that is quickly becoming a modeling favorite, the “has been” that has been under the knife one too many times, the model that can’t catch a break no matter how hard she tries, and the makeup artist that views it all from the fringes. The audience follows fresh-faced Jesse on her journey to stardom, but there is a constant awareness of how her rise affects her “friends”. Beyond this relatively to-the-point plot, the film greatly lacks in dialogue and proper pacing. There are large periods of time where there is absolutely no conversation between the characters. Even when there is some dialogue, the line delivery tends to be widely spaced. It makes the film seem to move at a snails pace, coming dangerously close to boring the audience. Things pick up a bit during the final act, where there is still not much talking, but there are at least some interesting events that make you laugh, cringe, and gasp all at the same time.
The moments that are devoid of dialogue are filled with stimulating artistic visuals. Many of the key moments are shown as a metaphoric display of neon lights and glitter. For example, when Jesse reaches her peak of the modeling industry, the audience is shown her internal transformation from an innocent girl into the “neon demon.” It is almost as if you are watching a piece of art move and breathe. Many of these visuals are accompanied with an amazing score. The music almost has an eighties video game feel to it, which fits in well with the use of neon lights in dark spaces throughout the film. There are even times when the makeup for the models is reminiscent of certain video games.
Since there was so little speech in Neon Demon, it makes it somewhat difficult to really judge the acting. I love Elle Fanning (Maleficent, Super 8) and think she is a fantastic actress. In her role as Jesse, however, she seemed a bit vacant through most of the film. I’m attributing this to the directing more so than her acting because it is a common theme with those playing the models. All three of the main women playing models were generally stiff, but there was a little something that made each of them different. Fanning at one point makes a change to a more seductive, menacing persona. Bella Heathcote (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) played Gigi, who is also quite rigid. On top of that, she manages to come off as both pompous and insecure all at the same time. Then there is Abbey Lee (Mad Max: Fury Road) as Sarah. What makes her stand out is her desperation to make it in the modeling world. Jena Malone (Sucker Punch) was probably the only main character that was able to show more emotion throughout the film because she wasn’t a model. She played Ruby, the makeup artist who is the first to befriend Jesse. Ruby is probably the most real and down to earth of the four main girls, but you do not want to get in the way of what she desires.
Did I love Neon Demon? No. Did I hate it? No. Would I watch it again? Most likely. Neon Demon is a film that is visually stunning, but it is lacking in substance, much like the models the film focuses on. As I was watching the film I couldn’t help but think if it had been an art installation in an upscale gallery, I would have thought it was absolutely amazing. Seeing as it was a film, I thought it wasn’t paced well enough and it didn’t have enough plot or dialogue to really keep me interested. This may sound harsh, but from the little experience I have with Nicolas Winding Refn I feel like his films lean towards being pretentious. The film tries to be a profound and artistic commentary on the modelling world, but unfortunately it errs on the side of being as vapid as that industry.
OVERALL RATING: 5/10