Writing Autopsy: Oh, For Fuck’s Sake, The Neon Demon

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.

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Writer Autopsy: What’s the Matter With the Conjuring 2?

I was very late to the party on The Conjuring, but when I saw it about two months ago it scared the pants off me. (There’s nothing dignified about a 36 year old man clutching his fiancée like some sort of mystical talisman against the dark – but it’s definitely fun.) So I was happy to devote a couple of hours to the followup last week – only to be disappointed. It’s not the worst thing in the world, but it’s not that scary or interesting, even though it has a lot of the same ingredients as the first one.

But for a writer, a failed piece of work can be just as educational as a successful one. You can see the cracks – in fact, the cracks leap out at you. So here are the cracks in The Conjuring 2.

Structurally Fucked: The movie is 2 hours and 15 minutes long, give or take. Which is too long for a haunted-house movie to start with – but that weakness is really exacerbated by the frontloading of the haunting. We get an hour and 30 minutes of foreboding rattles and jump scares before the demon hunters show up – and that fight is the center of the story, especially since it isn’t until that conflict gets rolling that we actually gain even a hint of understanding as to the nature of what’s happening.

The long buildup might have been sustainable if there had been slightly clearer hints as to the nature or motivation of the ghost, but there just aren’t. Slight spoiler, but the ghost’s main motivation seems at first to be . . . wanting to watch a different TV channel?

Low Stakes: It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why, but you know practically from the get-go that no one in this movie is going to die. Even after the haunting is clear to everyone, people just kind of hang around, remaining under threat. They go elsewhere if they want to sleep, suggesting that the ghost is about as threatening as a termite infestation. The exception, of course, is the ‘host’ character – but even she isn’t seen to be really in danger until a very late scene. The haunting, for her, is more of a bummer because it makes her a social outcast, than because she’s in actual danger. That’s just not a good way to generate fear.

Contrast that with the first movie, where people had a mounting plague of bruises and cuts, and oh yeah, your mom is trying to murder you. And your mom is Lili Taylor, and she’s totally terrifying.

Fake, Shallow Central Relationship: Since it’s now officially A Franchise, the Conjuring’s central duo are more important than in the first film. And nothing about them feels remotely real. God Bless Vera Farmiga, who deserves much better, but these un-flawed whitebread ghost hunters are terminally uninteresting. And their boringness makes the few moments when they express their mutual affection downright squicky – “It’ll give you something to look forward to when you get home.” Thanks, Mom and Dad.

All of which is to say that their relationship is core to the dramatic moment at the heart of the movie, when Dad Hunter decides to go into the house alone despite the danger. When Farmiga tells him, “I can’t lose you. I’m so scared,” it’s hard to buy, because they seem more like business partners and mutual beards than two people in love.

Doesn’t Question its Own Highly Questionable Premise: The movie makes a few minor gestures towards the haunting being faked, but it doesn’t rise to the level of a dramatic question, largely because the context makes doubt hard to swallow. Everyone who questions Mom and Dad Ghost Hunters’ core belief that demons love to possess children and haunt houses is depicted as a deluded, pinheaded ivory-tower academic, who is also physically weak. Dad Ghost Hunter is shown to be willing to beat someone up for his beliefs, which is, you know, proof that he’s right?

Even on its own terms, this does much less than the first film to explore the idea that demons prey on weakness and doubt. Honestly, it could even be seen as pretty anti-feminist, since basically all the family did to ‘invite’ the haunting is to be led by a single mother.

Anyway, intellectually shallow. I had the same problem with The Witch and its dangerously-close-to-total acceptance of women as conduits of evil – though that’s a far, far superior film.

Other Minor Stuff:

Uses the exact same “crosses flipping upside down” moment as the first movie (I’m pretty sure?). Gives us a three minute montage set to “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You,” which, sorry, doesn’t do much to actually convince me about the relationship.