Neon Lights Review: Psychological Thriller Quickly Loses The Plot

Psychological thrillers live and die by the minds of their protagonist and, when those prove untrustworthy, the audience is left with nothing but themselves to make sense of what's on the screen before them. In Neon Lights, Clay Amani (Dana Abraham) is at the center of the narrative and can be seen as a typical unreliable narrator — if there were any narrative cohesion to what is happening in the hour and a half put on film. Neon Lights shows promise, but it quickly buckles under the weight of an identity crisis. The film is unsure if wants to be a portrait of a man on the verge, a slasher, or a psychological chamber piece, and it ultimately fails to live up to any of these ideas.

Neon Lights follows Clay, a man on the brink of losing the CEO position at his company Tempest Tech and also, quite possibly, his mind. His own ambiguous mental health issues plague him during an interview early in the film, one that quickly goes off the rails when the reporter refuses to lob softball questions his way. After this breakdown, Clay goes off the grid, retreating to an estate where he aims to reconnect with his family and ground himself amidst the tumultuous days before Tempest's IPO. What begins as a family reunion, though, quickly takes a dark turn, devolving into a haphazard nightmare.

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While Neon Lights initially appears to have quite a lot going on (and the set-up itself quite promising), it literally loses the plot as, like Clay himself, the narrative spins out of control. Threads that are seemingly important — including the tech company subplot and invasive flashes of a therapy session that only makes sense at the end of the film — are included, but don't serve to contextualize much of anything. It's clear the audience isn't supposed to trust Clay, but Neon Lights spends so little time allowing viewers to get to know him that his entire character is undermined.

This goes for the rest of the characters in the film as well. While the cast does their best with what they're given, Neon Lights is populated by thinly sketched and wholly unlikeable characters. With not much to hinge upon, the film seemingly throws everything at the wall in an attempt to see what sticks. From a brief foray into slasher horror to what appears to be a trippy subplot involving the eponymous lights, Neon Lights tries to juggle too much and ends up dropping the ball.

The most fascinating things about the film, including the tech company subplot, the questions surrounding mental health, and the attempts at family reconciliation, are glossed over in service of a plot that doesn't fully come together, even when the final twist is revealed. Although the twist does help make sense of what came before it, it's virtually too late to justify the previous hour and a half, leaving the viewer with more questions rather than answers. While ambiguous endings can be utilized quite effectively, ambiguity can't stand in for substance in this case.

Ultimately, Neon Lights has the bones of a good premise, but the script's desire to obfuscate plot to drum up mystery leaves much to be desired and does a disservice to the audience. From the unclear connections between the family members and unanswered questions that leave plot threads dangling, the film fails to conjure up a potent blend of psychological terror and something meaningful to say about its characters. While Neon Lights is visually interesting, it unfortunately leaves a lot of potential behind in favor of pulling out the rug from under audiences at the end. It just doesn't quite work the way it's intended.

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Neon Lights will be available on demand and digital on July 12. The film is 94 minutes long and rated R for violence, language, some sexual content, and drug use.

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