Primary-coloured, textured title cards and a shrieking, O.T.T. synthesiser score immediately puts one in mind of kitschy horror-thrillers of the 70s and 80s, particularly the hyper-stylised, violent, Italian ‘giallo’ flicks of schlock-meister Dario Argento. As well as contributing to one’s understanding of the origins of the unique visual palette of the film, the immediately recognisable stylishness makes certain expectations operative within the viewer. It is through both adherences to, and (more often) deviations from these expectations that Refn unleashes the taboo power of The Neon Demon.
Anybody who comes away from this film complaining in any way about ‘the point’ of the movie has, ironically enough, missed it. The most crucial thing The Neon Demon tries to emulate through its sonic and visual allusions to 70s/80s shock and sex cinema is that of immediate, unfiltered experience. The film industry now seems more than ever to be adhering to a binary where a film is either ‘smart’ or ‘dumb’, where the ‘smart’ movies are more often focussed on drama, internal conflict etc. while the ‘dumb’ movies are big action blockbusters, or carbon-copy horror franchise flicks.
The thing about the latter is that while the material is more-often-than-not subpar, the films do offer pure involvement and instant emotional gratification for the viewer, as opposed to sombre reflection and slow-burning emotional tension. What The Neon Demon does is marry the formal immediacy of an action film with the imagery and content of a drama. The end result is a film that, rather than moving conventionally through a series of pre-set narrative pit-stops on the way to a ‘satisfying’ conclusion, works through a series of emotionally and visually intense ‘nows’, as opposed to ‘ifs’ or ‘whens’ and the oft prescribed expectation/fulfilment formula audiences are used to.
Due to this juxtaposition of the aesthetic and set-up of a run-of-the-mill 70s/80s thriller, the content of a damning cultural indictment of L.A, and the direct configuration of its formal approach, The Neon Demon does not make sweet, satisfying love to the viewer. It’s a rubber-clad, goose-fleshed fuck of a film that refuses to cuddle you afterwards.