Director Nicolas Winding Refn is obsessed with pulsating colors and lithe silhouettes. A menagerie of vacuously buoyant electronica and cobalt eyes. Seedy provisions through the pastoral scope of ambiance and bloodless fatigue. The Danish filmmaker’s aesthetic compass bleeds chandelier refraction. He’s a quixotic carnival barker, spinning yarns somewhere between the saliva-flecked stories of Bret Easton Ellis and the viscous morality plays of Michael Haneke. Refn’s inkjet universe stymies levity. Admonishes conformity. And sleds over gore like an Olympic trial in Hades.
So, what’s to make of the jangling, otherworldly chimes? The soft curls of hair ironed to look like drill bits? With the auteur’s latest film, “Neon Demon,” the oft-explored world of lecherous Los Angeles is explored. Perverse power plays and flecked gold. Wanderlust by way of submerged keyboards. Refn’s style is capsized with glitter – it’s a world that becomes lost in its own perilous, en vogue aesthetic. Sometimes, that’s a good thing for the banality of modern film. Sometimes, it’s also a regression. With “Neon Demon,” Refn is lost in his own stylistic pirouettes. Here is a gifted director that is so enthralled in his own metallic visuals that he forgets to design a compelling, equally engaging, narrative. The popgun reverberation of high heels in sterile, toneless office buildings supersedes story. Self-absorption as motif. Style as death. Hope as the dangling body inside of a predator’s jaws.
The emotional fallout of Refn’s work can even be seen, dot-to-dot, in Ryan Gosling’s “Lost River,” a florescent fun house of jutting colors and deadpan line readings. One has to wonder if filmmakers should be replicating Refn’s visual formula. The worry is that once you’re in the fields of this specific style, the blades of grass may be too tall to ever find your way out. Tones should be a sidecar to a story, but never the driver. Wes Anderson has been, sometimes unjustly, lampooned for similar choices. But Refn really waltzes over the edge of the blade. With Anderson, there is a decided plot. With Refn, dull, terse line deliveries over the low chatter of synth scores seem to be his monomaniacal narrative (as of late, anyway).
His actors, particularly in “Neon Demon,” are treated like translucent chess pieces. Glass roses made by glaziers. And perhaps, one could argue, that’s the point of the film’s indictment of fashion and manipulation. But Refn’s cold presentation of his actors seems more superficial than that.
With the wonderfully grim graphic novel panels of “Drive” now in the rear-view mirror, Refn, perhaps unintentionally, posits a question of excess over access. The Danish director is one of our most gifted working filmmakers, but with the equilateral blue lights of “Neon Demon” and the torturous glee of “Only God Forgives,” we have to wonder, as spectators, if the flashing lights and broken glass has overtaken its own creator.