Review: Nicolas Winding Refn's Uncompromising, Hypnotic 'The Neon Demon'
by Jeremy Kirk
June 24, 2016
Nicolas Winding Refn creates iconic characters, individuals who, despite the madness in which they're usually swept up, have a mythological aura that clings to them like a bur. His latest, The Neon Demon, follows suit. The protagonist is a young woman trying to break into the cutthroat world of modeling. Though Refn instills in her the same, memorable qualities he has used to grow many characters before, the harsh world and sadistic players he builds become more so. The Neon Demon is a wicked, bloody, fairy tale that could only be delivered by Refn. Uncompromising in tone, pace, and outcome, it may be his most divisive film yet. That doesn't stop The Neon Demon from being a brutally honest look at the fashion world and the shallowness that goes with it that slowly builds to a violent finale. In other words: it's pitch-perfect Refn.
That young protagonist in the middle of this cautionary tale is Jesse (Elle Fanning). She has the look and capability of breaking into the modeling world, but, more than that, she has that certain quality on which no one can quite put their finger, but everyone notices. As one designer tells her, she is "a diamond in a sea of glass," and her star is sure to rise in the industry despite the competition. Even if you don't have first-hand experience in that particularly business you can assume with an almost certainty that competition is as cruel as they come, and Jesse's time spent in Los Angeles becomes increasingly infused with madness and lunacy.
It isn't the men in Jesse's world that are the chief causes for concern. Yes, the designers and photographers Jesse encounters aren't exactly playing with a completely moral compass, and the day-to-day masculinity with which she has to deal brings its own level of danger with it. It's the other models, though, that prove to be the main concern when it comes to Jesse's success, the women who have been doing photoshoots and runway shows for many years. As with Gigi (Bella Heathcote), an experienced model who has had ample amounts of plastic surgery to achieve that perfect beauty, it's the natural quality of Jesse's look that makes her a target. But all of that comes later. Much, much later.
As with his previous outings Refn doesn't allow anything in The Neon Demon to come across as forced. Even something as simple as an audition is allowed its time to breathe on screen, and, in typical, Refn fashion, it never, ever plays out quite like you might expect it to. You have to admire the way the filmmaker, who wrote this screenplay along with Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, moves the audience through his story, sometimes cutting from something with interpose, other times holding on an object or moment until long after its made its impact. Every decision Refn makes in the course of the film is undoubtedly his own, though, and damn the moviegoers for whom this latest picture doesn't work.
It goes back to something Bernie Rose – Albert Brooks' character from Drive – says when talking about the movies he used to produce. "One critic called them European," he says, "I thought they were shit." It's almost a certainty Bernie Rose would hate the films Refn makes because he holds onto that European sensibility so strongly. With The Neon Demon the filmmaker is almost challenging his audience, forcing them to trudge through scene after scene of trivial dialogue all the while with full knowledge that something nefarious is going on in the undercurrent, never holding the viewer's hand through the myopic structure. You aren't sure what is coming down the pike far ahead of you, but you know it isn't going to be pleasant.
It's exactly what you might expect from Refn who finally comes at us with his take on the horror genre, but The Neon Demon plays just as well as black comedy or satire. Some of the dialogue is ridiculously hateful. Some of the actions of the characters encircling Jesse in this world are unquestionably sadistic.
Refn captures all of this with the same, magnificent eye with which he's utilized before working with cinematographer Natasha Braier for the first time here. The pair creates beautiful imagery together, the color and lighting of every scene pressing it firmly into the viewer's mind even if the scene is minimalist enough to have some critics crying style over substance. It is style to be sure, thick and luxurious style, and the pulsing sounds of Cliff Martinez's score makes it all the more hypnotic.
Refn delivers the substance, as well, though, and it comes from more than the impeccable work he pulls out of Fanning. She gives her most matured performance to date with The Neon Demon despite Refn utilizing her quiet innocence to its fullest potential. A child lost in the dark, concrete woods of dimly lit nightclubs and immaculate mansions is nothing new, but Refn's statement about the cannibalistic industry he's depicting is unquestionably pellucid. The worlds he delivers almost always chew the innocent up, but none spit it back out quite like the one seen here. To that end The Neon Demon may be Refn's most foreboding expression of innocence lost to date. It is certainly his most horrific.