The Neon Demon vs Only God Forgives

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Only God Forgives

There’s an eerie similarity to Nicolas Winding Refn’s last two films. Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon are both cut from the same cloth, but only one is a good film. Only God Forgives is exactly what people didn’t want after Drive, but exactly what any film student would have expected; a left-turn aesthetic indulgence. There are things to like, such as the incredible cinematography from the man behind Eyes Wide Shut’s images, but aside from that and the general atmosphere, there is little else. Refn’s next film, 2016’s The Neon Demon changes cinematographers but retains the mood. It is a deeply disturbing visual feast exploring the overblown and very real dramas of the modeling industry, and the fairytale lies of Hollywood itself. The simple answer to why The Neon Demon succeeds is that it has a better story than Only God Forgives, but if you’ve seen the overly dramatic third act of The Neon Demon you know that isn’t true. It involves jealous models consuming Elle Fanning’s Jesse, and their subsequent deaths. The Neon Demon certainly has better characters than Only God Forgives, but there is more than one thing that makes it the better film, and the better iteration of Refn’s post-success experimental phase.

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The Neon Demon

The film opens with a prolonged title sequence and buzzy, new wave influenced score. Its despondent and satirical tone is seen through Jesse’s dead body lying modeled in a tantalizing pose, foreshadowing her fate as well as what got her there. It is, like Only God Forgives, a deeply symbolic film that spends large amounts of time indulging in special effects sequences and flashy lighting tricks. The Neon Demon ties this perfectly into the modeling business the film parodies. Only God Forgives uses tricks for the sake of using them. The difference is not hard to detect, you need only watch the first 30 minutes of each film, but what happened between 2013 and 2016 to Refn’s process that resulted in such an improved version of what he tried with Only God Forgives? Time, and the critical fallout of that film are the best arguments that likely shook Refn awake to what the public wanted from him.

Drive was a surprise hit, and he was left flailing, pushing him to his most experimental work yet in Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon. One was an indulgence in Japanese culture and moody lighting, the other a sublime satire with an atmosphere that complimented its story. The issue with Only God Forgives is that it is too self serving and prizes aesthetic above all, making it a visually interesting but incredibly boring film. The Neon Demon is only a minor improvement, but it shows a devotion to storytelling that compliments Refn’s style unlike Only God Forgives, and is the left-turn indulgence filmmakers should aspire to.