The Neon Demon ★★★★★

"People will believe what they're told."

I have an abundance of issues with this film on a thematic level. There are numerous, completely valid criticisms out there regarding the portrayal of women (specifically gay women) and the modeling industry at large, and I agree with most of them. I do not give any weight to a filmmaker's external commentary, as any statement of intent that is not reflected in the work itself is worthless in my eyes. Nicolas Winding Refn may have set out to make a film about how the competitiveness and vanity of women is somehow worse than their exploitation by men, but that is not what I take from this film. While I can complain about its messaging, I cannot deny the power it had over me as I watched it. The Neon Demon is hypnotic, one of the most enthralling and glorious cinematic experiences I've ever had. When I'm in it, I am engulfed by it, and that is what warrants this rating.

Natasha Braier is one of the best cinematographers working today (XXY has a dramatically different look, but her apparatuses and skills still shine through). People are so quick to discredit her, giving all the praise for the visual aesthetic to Refn, but to deny her contribution is simply inaccurate. Refn likely had a strong visual in mind for this project, but it's Braier who's capturing the light just right. She gets the most out of every single space, every color, every detail. Everything in the frame is there because it needs to be, and it looks absolutely incredible. This is one of the most visually striking films I've seen, and every shot is as effective in establishing tone and building tension as it is beautiful. It's impossible to leave The Neon Demon without thinking about how perfectly it's captured, but the cinematography isn't the sole component of that. Intricate and colorful production design, costumes, and wildly creative make-up looks make every character and location look phenomenal.

While the visual elements alone are impeccable at creating a suspenseful, haunting atmosphere, the direction of the actors and the sonic elements are similarly powerful. The long pauses between lines of dialogue and stilted deliveries may drive some viewers crazy, as it's far from naturalistic, but these beats are purposive. They're rhythmic. The dialogue is woven into the soundscape, voices becoming yet another instrument in this terrifying symphony. The ambient sounds of each space are another element in this, but they all pale in comparison to Cliff Martinez's brilliant score. It's not exactly music I'd ever listen to independently, but in the context of the film, I freakin' love it (there are children on this website). I was casually head-banging during half the scenes, and I'm still listening to the score as I write this, re-living all the best sequences in my mind. It always kicks in at just the right moments, and despite its unusual and clearly non-diegetic sound, it almost reads as the music inside the minds of the characters, telegraphing how they feel without any words having to be said. The Neon Demon is hypnotic in a way I've never experienced before, and it's this haunting quality that draws me in time and time again.

While creepy, atmospheric films have a tendency to be more cerebral than entertaining, I personally had a lot of fun with The Neon Demon. It's weird and freaky, and I'm into it. Certain sequences made me squirm a bit too much on my first watch, but now on my third, over a year later, I think they still work. They're wild and shocking, but there's something I find exciting about that. It wouldn't work if every moment were like that, but intermittently, I really like these freak-outs. The final act is perhaps the most exciting, a long, tense build up to a fully satisfying and disturbing ending. Like I said, it's really quite strange, and I don't blame anyone for being put off by it. I just think it's kind of a bizarrely amazing good time.

This is the point of the review where I realize that it's now past 3AM, and I stopped making sense a few paragraphs ago. I won't defend this film from any of the hate it gets, because it's almost all warranted. I am captivated by the sense of tension and danger here, and the feeling that all these characters are out for blood, but the thematic connections are deeply flawed. There's a part of me that hates this movie and Refn for making it, but when I'm watching it, that all fades away. It's an experience. I think it's a great one.

Rating: 92/100

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