Most people probably don’t realize that Nicolas Winding Refn has been directing movies since long before Drive. Always reveling in the underworld, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood came knocking. It probably didn’t hurt having worked with actors such as John Turturro (Fear X), Mads Mikkelsen (Bleeder, Pusher, Valhalla Rising), and Tom Hardy (Bronson). The most interesting fact is that his best film (Drive) he didn’t write.
Ever since Refn made the anti-Fast and Furious, he’s never been able to recapture that lightning in a bottle. Only God Forgives wound up being an indecipherable disaster. A least with The Neon Demon, Refn manages to make a visually stunning film, even if it still fails to connect the dots on any kind of story level. Not even Elle Fanning’s knockout performance can cobble the pieces together to make The Neon Demon worth the self indulgent two-hour runtime.
Sixteen-year-old Jesse (Fanning) is an aspiring model and is quickly taken under the wings of makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone) who introduces her to the jealous Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote). Jesse has that perfect look that most models would kill for, quickly scooping up private jobs for the highly-coveted photographer Jack (Desmond Harrington) and end-girl at a runway show. The stakes continue to get higher as Jesse slips her way up the runway ladder with Sarah, Gigi, and Ruby hatching a plan to try to get whatever it is she has.
Broadgreen Pictures distributes The Neon Demon for Amazon Studios on Blu-ray with stunning results. Say what you want about the Refn’s meandering plot, but the film looks spectacular in high def. Colors explode off the screen while never blooming or bleeding, and blacks never crush unless intentionally. Detail could have used a little bit of a boost; the film never looks as in focus as it could. Unfortunately, a hint case of banding can be spotted in the sky behind Fanning and co-star Karl Glusman in a nighttime scene. And a tiny case of judder affects a door frame in Jesse’s hotel room during a long pan. Aside from that, this is a tip top presentation.
The 5.1 DTS-HD track could also have used a bit of a life. Never fully utilizing the surround speakers, this is one front heavy mix. The music is placed at the forefront, but dialogue is never completely drowned out. Bass is never as punchy as you’d expect considering composer Cliff Curtis’s use of disco-infused beats, but it’s still an almost intoxicating score. It’s just a shame that it wasn’t put to better use to fully envelope the viewer in Refn’s mad, mad world. A Spanish 5.1 DTS Digital Surround mix, along with English and Spanish subtitles are included.
Considering how much love Refn has for his own film, the special features are particularly lacking. Anyone hoping to learn more about the production is stuck with an “Audio Commentary with Refn and Elle Fanning.” It’s more interesting to hear Fanning ooh and aah over her first commentary recording than to hear Refn try to explain his supposed symbolism. “Behind the Soundtrack” (5 mins) consists of Refn and Curtis gloat over the score and “About The Neon Demon” (1 min) is a super quick EPK piece with Fanning talking about how she had to be involved in a horror film revolving around models.
The Neon Demon is never particularly bad, but rarely really good. You watch each scene play out hoping that it leads up to some kind of brilliant finale. Instead, all we get are the end credits. It’s like listening to a two hour crescendo only to have the power go out before anything really happens. It feels incomplete, yet nothing happens that makes you wish there was more. To avoid spoiler territory, all I can say is that without the return of Fanning, there’s absolutely no way to continue anyway. Bolstering a fantastic video transfer — hindered by an unengaging sound mix — and lacking an effective allotment of bonus features, The Neon Demon never sinks its teeth into the material like it thinks it is. It’s every bit as vapid and beautiful as the models it sets out to mock. With some luck, Refn will finally be able to rise back up to the brilliance of Drive, but this is definitely not it.