I am beginning to wonder what the over/under is on how many more films Nicolas Winding Refn can get made before the people financing his works of alternately beautiful and ugly imagery realize that the commercial success of DRIVE was an anomaly? That question in no way implies that I think any film should be judged on the basis of financial success. I just find it fascinating that a filmmaker with such non-commercial instincts can somehow keep convincing normally risk-averse financiers to invest in his violent, moody, dream logic-infused movies. I suppose — when you take into account that his follow up to DRIVE was ONLY GOD FORGIVES, a movie seemingly designed to make the audience recoil from its aggressive nastiness — THE NEON DEMON sounded like a step back toward the more commercial territory of his breakthrough hit. In a way, it is. But what few people seem to remember is that DRIVE was not exactly a mainstream film.
In a way, THE NEON DEMON almost feels like a very specific prequel to DRIVE. I have no idea if Refn intended that or if I am reading too much into what initially feels like a simplistic (but ultra-stylish) morality play. The two films do not share any characters or settings in common. But this story of aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning) discovering the horrors of vengeful fellow models, creepy fashion photographers, and judgmental agents reminded me of a throw-away shot in DRIVE that featured several exotic dancers staring on impassively as that film’s protagonist threatened to pound a bullet into a man’s head with a hammer. The lack of horror, fear, disgust, or any other emotion shown by these women who were lacquered in too much makeup with their faces and bodies altered by plastic surgery struck me as one of the odder and more unsettling touches in that film. With THE NEON DEMON, it feels like Refn is showing how the dehumanizing effect that the fashion industry has on the models could lead to a situation where those women would sit and not care if someone were beaten to death in front of them. But more than likely, I am reading far too much into a movie that favors extreme style over substance.
More than even ONLY GOD FORGIVES, THE NEON DEMON is a litmus test for audiences. It is a film that measures if a viewer is able to get on board with Refn’s excesses and obsessions or if they dismiss him as a pastiche artist indulging in shock and languid pacing. Personally, I have always found his films equally flawed, fascinating, and brilliant. Occasionally, he pulls all his talents together and comes up with something like DRIVE or VALHALLA RISING — both films that I consider masterpieces. But more often than not, the results fall in line with something like THE NEON DEMON.
I hate for this sound too much as though I am giving the film a series of backhanded compliments because I was transfixed for much of it. If nothing else, it serves as a delivery system for some beautiful cinematography by Natasha Braier and yet another great score by Cliff Martinez. The alternately dreamy and nightmarish look and tone of the familiar story eventually spins out of control to incorporate elements of goofy stunt casting (Keanu Reeves pops up as a sleazy motel manager), a grotesque sequence set in a funeral home, and a possible hallucination that ends in a bit of gross out gore make for a viewing experience that is hard to shake, even if it all feels slightly derivative of the films of Dario Argento, David Lynch, and Michael Mann.
I cannot claim to have enjoyed THE NEON DEMON. Despite incorporating some amusing deadpan comedy and Reeves having a lot of fun with his completely repellent character, it is not a film that is entertaining in any traditional sense of the word. But I did admire the audacity of how far into absurdity the whole thing was pushed and the top-notch technical craft put into it. Whatever your feelings on Refn’s work going into it, the film will not change your opinion of him as a director for the better or the worse. I have a feeling that is exactly as he would want it.