The Neon Demon: All Style, No Substance

the neon demon gif2star“She’s a diamond among a sea of glass. True beauty is the highest currency we have. Without it she’d be nothing.”

Beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing…which is apparently a news flash in director Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest glam femme horror feature, The Neon Demon.

With a mixture of extreme vulgarity and brilliant glamour, this toxic fairy tale is receiving quite the feedback from critics. And you’d imagine Refn would have it no other way.

Elle Fanning the neon demon

The Neon Demon drew boos as well as cheers at a press screening at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. But the film’s director wasn’t there to see it. “I wait outside [during screenings],” says the director. “I get very nervous. I never enjoy it.” The Danish filmmaker got a much better reception that same evening in Cannes, when his movie received a 17-minute standing ovation (and reportedly also led to two fights).

Refn said he wanted to make a horror film about beauty, a horror satire of Hollywood.Its commentary on the shallowness of the Los Angeles modeling scene didn’t pique my interest. The superficiality of Hollywood/models/actors/society isn’t newsworthy for the majority of us, but, nevertheless, some are hailing this film as “disturbingly wonderful cinema.” But is it really?

Neon Demon Gif


the neon demon

Beauty and the pursuit of beauty are dangerous. The Neon Demon is an absolutely brutal viewing, but not in the way you’d expect. The optimist inside me wanted to go into this movie with an open mind; completely prepared for the strange and unusual that Refn would elegantly vomit onto the screen. What I wasn’t prepared for was how dull and deflated a movie could be even with the inclusions of some serious shock-value scenes.

“Refn’s early movies (1996’s “Pusher,” 1999’s “Bleeder”) showed him to be a gifted if willfully outré genre director. But in recent years, and especially in this film, his work looks like that of a technically adept, emotionally stunted adolescent who’s not nearly as bright as he thinks he is, and who is desperate to elicit the concern of his parents. The Neon Demon is hot garbage that dares you to call it offensive. In addition, it is offensive.” via New York Times

the neon demon

When 16-year-old aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning) moves to Los Angeles, her youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will take any means necessary to get what she has. In a town where you “might as well retire at 21”, as one character points out, youth becomes a priceless commodity. Maybe it was the casting or the character herself, but I found Fanning/her character simple, dull and lifeless, yet every single supporting character acted like she was the next Kate Moss. Girl, no.

Not too deep, right? It has all the ingredients to be a made-for-TV Lifetime movie, or perhaps an HBO original movie with proper budgeting. It’s another analysis on the human condition and our obsession with natural beauty. Haven’t we seen this before? It’s basically Black Swan meets Hannibal with lots of neon lighting and glitter. But this is Refn on board the floundering SS Neon Demon, so it’s got to surpass television and hit the festival circuits, the theaters, the big screen. NWR is a pompous man.

Neon Demon Quote

“My initial idea was I wanted to make it a horror film. At times I do enter that world. I think the idea was to make a horror film that became a science-fiction film with a lot of melodramatic tropes. I just think it was time to do a film about women. But not just women, I wanted to do a movie about a teenage girl. It was a great counter to the masculinity of Drive. In Drive, there’s a heightened male edge. In Only God Forgives, it was almost crawling back into the womb of the mother. And now with The Neon Demon, being reborn as a 16-year-old girl.” Nicolas Winding Refn via Business Insider

Fanning said in an interview with The Verge that she was drawn to the script because it featured a largely female cast…but every female character is insecure, desperate and batshit crazy. People call Refn a pioneer in film-making, and he is. But following his most celebrated film, 2011’s Drive, I’m not sure what bizarre path this Kanye-esque pioneer is exploring.

“The director has set out to make the most repellently misogynistic film imaginable, yet he’s disguised it as a postmodern feminist satire. By shattering every possible taboo, the film is supposed to be an attack against the very thing it represents. Really, though, any semblance of commentary is simply a posture for Winding Refn to cover his ass. This isn’t a case of épater les bourgeois, nor is The Neon Demon qualitatively comparable to the works of Paul Verhoeven or Harmony Korine – it’s much, much too stupid for that.” via The Film Stage

the neon demon gif

I wouldn’t say I was offended by it, but a little confused as to why it’s being upheld as masterful. Stylized but empty is what I took away from this glittering, malevolent dump. Fortunately, the combination of 80s-style synth score from Cliff Martinez, cinematography and design kept me mesmerized from time to time.

The best performance of the film is undoubtedly given by Abbey Lee who plays Sarah, a model in the twilight of her career who becomes desperate when Jesse (Elle Fanning) comes in the picture. Jesse may be the next “it” girl in the industry, but it’s Sarah — and Lee — who steals the screen. I find myself being both sympathetic and terrified of her desperate plight to outshine Fanning’s character. She certainly has the model-acting down and can emote more per scene than Fanning’s lifeless, doe-eyed facial expressions. Lee has also been a part of the fashion industry since making her own modeling debut in 2007 and admit that the competitiveness of the industry was something she related to.

abbey lee neon demon

The Neon Demon is meant to be an  eye-popping (no pun intended haha), artsy think-piece created to disturb and even appall. Refn is one of the greatest visual storytellers around, but why would he choose to cover a story so bland and disguise it as something magnificent? His style over substance unfortunately overpowers this film. This is a step back from Drive, but a step ahead of the tedious Only God Forgives.

2011’s Drive was my favorite film of the year and Refn’s most critically praised. The difference between Drive and Neon Demon (or even Only God Forgives) is that there was a passion in the film that the other two lacked. I truly cared about each character in Drive and felt invested in the plot. With Neon Demon, I felt neither. Neon Demon feels more like a vanity project that is trying to see how far it can shock audiences instead of connecting with them.


According to Abbey Lee, the message of the film is that “beauty always wins. Sarah gets what she wants and it works. In the end, that’s what the film is saying: that [beauty] is a powerful tool and that it does often work. Refn is exposing the truth about beauty, but not denying that that stuff is real.”

I got that message too, Abbey Lee, but you don’t walk away from The Neon Demon with groundbreaking insight on anything new. This film is as deep as a puddle and is as desperate as the characters it portrays to be cutting edge cinema.


17 thoughts on “The Neon Demon: All Style, No Substance”

  1. I’m going to try to see this on Saturday. I don’t have high expectations for it, and I’ll lower them even more after reading your words, but it looked interesting enough. Like you, Drive is my favorite and I hated Only God Forgives. I just hope it’s better than that.

    1. It’s definitely worth seeing, because the cinematography is gorgeous. Malone and Lee are great to watch too. I just don’t get the praise. It IS much more accessible than OGF, but can’t touch Drive.

  2. I read the original script and the ending mesmerized me. And now I read they changed it? 😆 well in any case nothing can be worse than OGF

      1. it was the close up of Sarah laughing manically after the photographer agrees to go out with her after saying how beautiful she looks and leaves the room for a moment (in the original script they used to have a thing but then he started ignoring her)

  3. I kind of have a feeling this would be ‘all style no substance’ which is what you could say about the fashion industry. I’m not sure I’m a fan of Refn’s style to be honest.

  4. This is disappointing to hear but I might like it. I love Refn’s style and Bronson, Drive and his early work with the Pusher films. Only God Forgives was a misfire, but I’m eager to see if he can make a comeback with this one. Hope I have a better time with it then you did.

  5. I just don’t care much for Refn’s work. I know he has a huge following but he is so sold out on his style. If you don’t care for it you are out of luck because he is going to pound you with it. That’s one reason I stayed away from this one even though I know many who liked it.

  6. I hated this film, thought I would just mention that first. But I love the way you put your review together, and the eye popping pun haha. I just didn’t get the whole point of it in all honesty, some of the scenes were shocking and disturbing but I don’t see that as wonderful cinema.

      1. Exactly!!! I feel not only violated but also that I wasted my time. I’d rather have seen Ab Fab again hahahaha

      2. It didn’t leave me with a strange feeling and it was funny at times. Surely a better advert for the modelling industry haha

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