Every week or so, we like to sit down and examine a film or TV show from a writer’s perspective, digging deep into the not-always-obvious mechanics of plot and character. Sometimes the exercise is an attempt to understand greatness. Other times – as in this week’s installment – it’s quite the opposite.
I should start things off by saying I didn’t finish Drive. I don’t remember disliking it, or particularly liking it. I just never finished it. Take that as you will.
But Neon Demon (let’s just put our cards on the table) is a pretty rough watch given the level of enthusiasm that greeted Nicolas Winding Refn’s first film. To call this one “half baked” would be an insult to collapsed cakes. Its theme is interesting, but the execution of that theme manages to be offensive and insulting. Its setting is trite, but workable. Its structure is a little weird, though not entirely broken. But the devil here is really in the details, because Refn has tried to direct a kind of horror film, but seems to have missed most of the key elements of what makes horror work.
Neon Demon is a film that completely eliminates suspense. It almost seems like an art project towards that goal. It’s not that you know what’s going to happen – the problem, actually, is that you don’t know enough about what’s going to happen.
Okay though, wait, rewind. Let’s start from the beginning here.
On Art Films and Abstraction
Some will certainly argue that this is not a movie where ‘writing’ should be a matter of focus. It’s an art film, people will say. And I’ll say look, having a lot of unnecessarily long takes does not make it an art film. The world’s great art films, while often not conventionally plotted, are usually incredibly well written/structured (same thing). Holy Mountain, Naked Lunch, Drawing Restraint 9: These are, I want to say symphonies, but maybe more like frantic, jagged jazz masterpieces.
And of course, there’s the comparison everyone is making, to David Lynch. But that comparison is an obscenity. In a Lynch film, things happen for no clear reason, but the characters have a gravity and intention that makes us wonder, and wonder hard, about the answer. Lynch, in Catching The Big Fish, describes the meticulous process of writing around an absent center. A film like Inland Empire, while it ‘doesn’t make sense,’ is absolutely the height of the writer’s craft.
In Neon Demon, almost nothing happens, for no reason, and the characters are so inanimate we take it for granted – until suddenly something does happen, for the absolute thinnest of reasons. And there is no shock to it, because we haven’t been given time or reason to build up any sense of attachment to events.
Okay though, wait, rewind. And Spoiler Alert.
A Three Sentence Summary Of a Two Hour Movie
Neon Demon is a movie about a very pretty model who shows up in L.A. She experiences immediate success. Then three other women, two models and one spurned lover, murder and eat her in a bid to regain the mystical appeal we are told the heroine (?) had.
There is very little more to the story than that. There are a few subplots that don’t connect to the central events, thematically or structurally. Because all of the scenes in the movie are paced with a glacial repose that’s intended to signal THIS IS ART in blinking lights, the characters do not have conversations. They drop lines as heavy as lead onto tables, and then stare at them ominously. 90% of the time they are spelling out their motivations for the audience, in capital letters printed on foam fingers pointed at the film’s attempted themes (those foam fingers are crafted from mixed metaphors by Asian child slave labor).
Of course, there are also times when the characters are lying. But Rafn and his actors seem to have only the vaguest idea which times those are. These characters don’t have enough clarity or depth to be deceptive – they simply lack coherent motivational throughlines, which is not at all the same thing.
There’s one particularly glaring example of how willfully Rafn defies realistic motivation in his characters. (SPOILER ALERT for good measure) One of the collaborators in the final murder is a spurned lover. We are given no insight – none – into the psychic path from rejection by someone who the character seems to have genuine feelings towards, to a desire to murder and eat that person. The spurned lover is not depicted at any point as overzealous or unstable, much less violent or interested in witchcraft. She seems nice, until she isn’t.
Witchcraft is only spelled out, awkwardly, after the murder, completely neutering any comparison to the superficially similar Suspiria. This is what I mean when I say we know too little about what is going to happen. Tension in a story like this arises from uncertainty about what’s going to happen. To generate that uncertainty you have to seed the world with either palpable threats or ominous signs. We are not cued to try and figure out what is going on in the shadows of this movie, mostly because nearly nothing is going on on the surface.
Loose Ends and Keanu Reeves
The only threatening figure in Neon Demon – a person whose actions give us reason for anxiety – is a hotel manager, played by Keanu Reeves. I’ll briefly stray from the topic of writing to say that Reeves isn’t bad in this film, he’s just utterly wrong for it. He’s not an actor, he’s a movie star, and unlike, say, Tom Cruise, he doesn’t seem to be able to deliver even a character that’s a thin hyperbolic sendup or deconstruction of a certain type of scumbag. So what we end up with is an older version of Johnny Utah, except he apparently is now a pedophile rapist.
And even when the film tries to do an impression of a tension-building head-fake, the fact that it’s Keanu Reeves trying to surf into the heroine’s hotel room makes it pretty hard to get worked up about.
And he ultimately has fuck all to do with the main story.
This is just one of the film’s many loose ends, characters and threads that simply disappear. Maybe this is how Rafn interprets ‘surrealism,’ but in fact it’s just lazy. Like, where does the boyfriend go? Him chasing after the heroine would have been a perfect opportunity to add some actual tension to this shark-preserved-in-formaldehyde of a film.
The Keanu subplot does point to one of the film’s strengths – its theme. There is something profoundly disturbing about the idea that beauty makes one a target of lust and need to everyone around you, while simultaneously penetrating your own head, convincing you of your own worth, so thoroughly that you can no longer see what’s going on around you. That’s trippy, and it’s also human.
And Elle Fanning is really perfect for that role. It’s believable that she has an ‘X factor’ that others simply don’t, and can’t achieve. Rafn gets a performance out of her that’s very nicely split between hopeful and self-involved.
But her transition from genuine naif to self-absorbed egotist takes place over the course of one musical number. I am not fucking kidding. You’re not even sure what’s happened until she suddenly casts aside a nearly impossibly good hearted boy who has been wholesomely pursuing and supporting her. However solid the logic of that transition in the abstract, the actual execution has about as much depth of real experience as a soda commercial.
The Good Men Project
The boyfriend is a good starting point for how the men in the film by and large undermine the initially interesting theme. The thing is, Keanu aside, they are all good guys. That includes a photographer who looms a bit but turns out to just be a really committed artist, and a designer who is callous and mercenary, but in no way deceptive or even any more exploitative than his industry demands.
No, instead of menacing men – you know, the kind that surround real women EVERY DAY OF THEIR LIVES, it is women who are the threat to other women here. To me, this reads like a man lecturing women to be nicer to each other, in willful and frankly complicit denial of reality.
Oh, and on that topic (Spoiler Alert The Third), the climactic scene of the film includes a spectacularly convoluted cover-up of the male gaze. After a brief and uninteresting chase, the villains – who have only really just become villains, because again, aside from one awkwardly done scene in a bathroom, we’ve had no clear buildup towards the idea that they will Do Something Bad – push Elle Fanning into an empty swimming pool.
The next thing we see is them bathing in her blood. During this sequence, Rafn lines his camera up with the sightline of the lesbian murderess, who stares longingly at the flawless bodies of her two accomplices – women who Rafn is saying have been driven to depravity by our culture’s obsession with beauty.
That’s like having your cake and eating it and then cutting it out of your own stomach and eating it again and then doing it a third time just for good measure. Rafn’s camera lies with more conviction than his characters.
Oh, and for more good measure, it’s not even clear in that scene that Elle Fanning’s character is eaten, instead of just murdered. Which on a very simple mechanics level makes the following denouement a little confusing.
That postscript, after the killing, is just about the most unappealing and nonsensical part of the film, and that’s saying something. While they haven’t been set up as killers until the very moment before they do the killing, at least one of the villains of the film has been effectively set up as a narcissist in the fifth degree. Then why the fuck is it she, and not the notably softer and more thoughtful accomplice, who has a post-cannibalism fit of regret so extreme that she kills herself? There’s no more glaring example of how lazy this movie is.
All that said, The Neon Demon does look kind of decent. It has lots of neon in it.
Because of course it does.