A Very Refn Film

Sam Jacobsen, Editor

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When I found out in 2015 that a horror movie by one of my favorite directors of all time was coming out, my heart exploded.  Fast forward a couple months and I’m sitting in house four of the Century Boulder Theater.  The room’s dark, and quiet.  By my side sits a friend, whom I’m eager to introduce to the world of arthouse directing.  Suddenly, Cliff Martinez’s fantastic soundtrack fills the room followed by one of the best opening scenes I have ever witnessed.  Then, the titles: Nicolas Winding Refn presents The Neon Demon.  Those first few moments in that theatre were absolutely amazing.  It was a very Refn way to open a movie–slow suspenseful build up to something beautifully colored and perfectly shot.  The rest of the movie follows in suit.  Brilliant colors (within the first minute the name The Neon Demon makes perfect sense), immaculate camera placement, and a breathtaking score.  Refn’s movies are for the majority, all like this.  From Pusher (1996), to my personal favorite Drive (2011) his films are, for the most part, meticulously crafted with few shots wasted.  Like Tarantino, Refn often trades substance for style, but within the first part of TND it becomes clear that Refn may have more control over the camera.  His ability to tell a story through visuals rather than dialogue is obvious.

Sadly, in TND Refn seemingly trades too much style for too little plot.  I use the word seemingly here because of the ten motion pictures Refn has completed, TND is certainly his most experimental, and the most confusing.  Simply put, TND is an arthouse film.  It’s not a mainstream horror.  It’s odd, it’s vicious, it’s both wonderfully deep and annoyingly shallow.  Truth be told, coming out of the theatre I was very confused; I couldn’t determine if I liked the film or not.  Fast forward to now (almost a month later) and I still haven’t fully decided if I like it or not.  I’m usually able to determine if I like a movie or not after a day or two.  This film though, is beyond me.  Its story is straight forward enough: A sixteen year old model (played wonderfully by Elle Fanning) gets involved with the L.A. modeling scene, and the rest of the time is spent warning viewers not to get involved in the L.A. modeling at the age of sixteen with no adult supervision…Or at least I think that’s what the movie means.  TND is confusing because it sends different messages at different times; at certain points the film seems to hate on the over importance of beauty, but then it also makes the modeling world seem glamorous.  It paints violence as evil and wrong, but fetishizes it.  The film seems as if Refn himself wasn’t entirely certain about it.

My uncertainty runs so deep that I refuse to write a true review, instead I’ve made a list for those debating whether or not to see it:

Do see The Neon Demon if:

  • You’re a Nicolas Refn fan (though not as good as Drive, Refn fan’s will probably dig this film)
  • You’re like really into films with Keanu Reeves, or Elle Fanning, or Jena Malone (all act spectacularly in this film)
  • You’re contemplating running away to get in on the L.A. modeling business
  • You’re an arthouse cinema lover
  • You’re a cinema lover (not just someone who likes movies, but someone that loves the art)
  • You’re a horror movie fan looking to broaden your horizons
  • You’re looking for a movie to start a conversation with friends about
  • You’re interested by movies with an amazing color pallet
  • You’re interested by movies with an amazing soundtrack

Do not see The Neon Demon if:

  • You hate Refn (pretty obvious)
  • You have a fear of empty pools
  • You hate Keanu Reeves, Elle Fanning, or Jena Malone
  • You have no stomach for blood (go see Me Before You instead)
  • You’re looking for a fun time with the kids (go see Finding Dory)
  • You’re looking for a straight forward movie that makes complete sense
  • You’re sensitive to strobe lighting

What not, and what to expect:

  1. Don’t expect a laid back scary flick; TND is disturbing, dark, and brutal, but not scary.
  2. Do expect to be surprised at what happens; the film has many twist and turns, and not many of them are obvious.
  3. Don’t expect any humor.  This is a dark arthouse drama.  The only light is that of Neon L.A.
  4. Do expect some slow moments; arthouse dramas (i.e. Under the SkinEx Machina) are often slow.
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