The Neon Demon
Written and Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Desmond Harrington, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves
After riding the critical wave with Drive and then crashing down with Only God Forgives, Nicholas Winding Refn has returned with the erotically stylized The Neon Demon. What’s even stranger than the content in the film is the fact that this is playing in multiplexes, as it has become apparent Refn is not interested in making another Drive. That was the closest example of commercial filmmaking from Refn, whose art house sensibilities are in full force with The Neon Demon. Branded by many as style over substance, this criticism may or may not be warranted as style is the forefront of Refn’s intentions. The narrative is presented through purely visual lens with this viscerally kinky journey through Los Angeles’ fashion scene.
We are introduced to Jesse (Elle Fanning) who moves to L.A. aspiring to make a career out of modeling. Jesse carries an aura of innocence to her, without realization of how virulent the world she’s venturing into is. The supporting cast includes Jena Malone as makeup artist Ruby, Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee as two models who instantly feel threatened by Jesse’s arrival, and very small appearances by Keanu Reeves and Christina Hendricks.
Jesse impresses everyone she encounters and steals the spotlight from her competition. One of the models shares all of the plastic surgery she went through to meet the unbelievable standards of the industry. Jesse’s beauty is entirely natural, making the girls around her even more envious.
Jesse tells her doting boyfriend that she can’t sing or dance or write, but she’s pretty. His character attempts to be the moral voice in the film, but it’s unrealized. Since these two are the closest things to real people in the movie, their dull dialogue makes their romance feel unearned. It also let’s Jesse’s turn from nice girl to one of the gorgeous zombies happen quicker.
Jena Malone may be the stand out of the film. Aside from a particular scene that maybe shouldn’t be talked about, her character has the most to work with. The other characters are supposed to look pretty and lifeless, but her role offers range and moves into some very dark places as the film progresses.
Refn wastes no time raising the curtain on this intoxicating world of vivacious activity sprinkled with glorious color. It’s almost a prerequisite for a Refn film to look amazing. The visual splendor of black scenery heightened by glimmers of neon gives the film an ecstatic sensation. The music, composed wonderfully by Cliff Martinez, pulses with kinetic vibrancy as it fuses with the dreamlike quality of each sequence. It’s not always pushing the narrative forward, but it’s easy to excuse Refn’s sybaritic filmmaking when it’s this aesthetically pleasing.
The commentary on how the artificial glitz and glamor of this world leads to narcissistic empty lives is nothing new here. Obvious influence David Lynch did the same thing more successfully with Mulholland Drive. But as much of a cautionary tale as this may be, Refn wants you to revel in the excess. One character says in the film, “Beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” These are soulless beings living high. Even though the setting is L.A. we don’t see a lot of people outside of this culture. Its surreal nature moves it into an otherworldly realm where depravity and self-destruction is the norm. Every woman looks malnourished, and they stare at themselves and each other with expressionless vanity.
Much of the contention for this film is surely in the third act, where things devolve into complete over-the-top repulsiveness. If this film can be labeled as “horror”, it’s due to the grotesque immersion towards the end. It’s extreme, but so is everything preceding it.
Subtlety is not what Refn is striving for. And, of course, not all of it works. One scene early on shows a photographer asking Jesse to remove her clothes, and the camera stays on her face while we see her insecurity tested. It’s effective and real, whereas other scenes towards the end become pornographic. Refn has a clear infatuation for the subject matter, but as things take turns for the worst in the latter half of the film, the excessiveness feels nothing more than that.
This film will not bode well with mainstream viewers, yet it’s an entertaining summer watch. But not for the reasons that Captain America: Civil War or Independence Day: Resurgence are. It’s dirty and vile, the type of film you never want your parents to see. It also stays with you long after it’s over. It gives you a small glimpse into a world where hollow beauty and cutthroat order are the rules to abide to. — James Leggett