Drive put Nicholas Winding Refn on the cinematic map. The 80's infused neo-noir thriller had something dark and powerful we'd not seen. Even though there was a malice lurking, it still had heart. So when Ryan Gosling teamed up with Refn again for Only God Forgives we all signed up for more of the same. Except it wasn't. The team's second outing was a meandering nightmare of dark corridors and totalitarian karaoke. It forgot it's audience and explored what it wanted, whether it made sense to us or not. Like Only God Forgives, Neon Demon received equal measures of applause and boo'ing at it's screening in Cannes and while it's still an exploration of themes it does little to accommodate its audience.
A tale of an aspiring model and the vampire-like fascination that the industry develops for her, there's a number of ways this could go. An examination into the exploitation of women in the industry. A lament on fame. The abuse suffered in the name of "vanity". Instead we're left feeling like these are lesser interesting concepts for the film maker to be glanced at and left for something he finds more interesting. Which would be fine, if they were exits passed on the highway to a better destination - but it just isn't.
It's true that the kind of audience paying to see the next Refn film are happy to be challenged. There won't be rampaging product placement and a hit tie-in song from Aerosmith. We're also more than happy to have our genre expectations twisted. So when Elle Fanning's Jesse naively navigates the hell she's in and seems haunted by a glowing tri-force (our Neon Demon), you roll with it. Given the change in Jesse's personality, more fitting with those around her, we're happy to accept this an allegory for the metamorphosis the new surroundings are having on her, but it never seems to gain traction. In fact nothing does. There's interesting themes abound in Neon Demon, but Refn seems happy to leave any half-developed strand and move on to something that catches his eye. It's an unsatisfying hybrid of Lynch and Scott. We may be happy to be challenged, but it has to be worth our while.
The opening of The Neon Demon is a visual banquet of beauty. The neon colours brought to life in Drive and then contrasted in Only God Forgives have reached their peak - it's a delirious cocktail that gives the surreal elements of the story a free pass. In all of Refn's works there seems to be a foreboding that's at odds with it's hypnotic draw, until you're too far in and ignored the warning signs. As unsatisfying as The Neon Demon is, there is a merit in causing a strong reaction in your audeince. That being said, it's undermined almost persistently by being a little too self aware. Each scene is deliberately drawn out, almost as if it's obsessed with it's own idea at that particular moment. You're made to wait while each line is delivered with purposeful intent, only to move swiftly on to the next seemingly inconsequential exchange. It's a bewildering demand that makes you angry for accepting the same invitation.
Although it's not without worth or interesting sub-texts, much like it's characters, it's more than a little self-absorbed.
2* - Requiem for a Beam