Putting it bluntly, Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon isn’t out there to resonate with everyone. While Winding Refn’s hypnotic, visual craft and abstract themes are to be commended, The Neon Demon doesn’t hide the notion that this is a film that is highly inaccessible for most audiences. For the uninitiated who haven’t watched Refn’s Only God Forgives or his more mainstream masterpiece, Drive, the feeling is off-putting. Regardless of that, it’s a film meant to be deeply analyzed in the years to come.
From the first shot of Elle Fanning’s Jesse lying on a beautiful couch in a murdered state, there is an immediate sense of the visual feast to come for the following two hours, albeit nosediving into the macabre. While we thinks she’s dead from the get-go, in reality, it’s a disturbing photoshoot for the 16-year-old to get her foot in the door in LA’s modeling business. Shortly after, she arrives in Los Angeles, doe-eyed and innocent, determined to make a name for herself.
Modeling in Los Angeles is depicted as a cutthroat, catty industry, which Jesse has flung herself into the middle of. With few allies when everyone’s aiming to get ahead, Jesse befriends a makeup artist named Ruby (Jena Malone) while also gaining support from a talent agent (Drive alum, Christina Hendricks). Though an immediate sensation on the scene, not everyone is pleased with Jesse’s quick rise to superstardom. Ruby’s modelling colleagues Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee) are instantly jealous, fueled by their hatred of her rare natural beauty. Initally their jealously becomes obvious in conversation, but as The Neon Demon progresses, actions speak much louder than words and desperation and paranoia begin to take form.
Jesse is by circumstances, the main character in The Neon Demon. But make no mistake about it, once she descends into the realm of vanity and self-absorption, she transforms into the cookie cutter model, who the audience struggles with empathizing with in a brutal love-hate relationship. Unlike Heathcote and Lee who are bestowed more nail-biting deviousness throughout, Fanning does an impressive job, riding the lines between innocence, obsession and narcissism. Her start as the deer-in-the-headlights newcomer evokes her performance in Maleficent, which comes off as understandably unenergetic. But below the surface, she is quite dangerous.
While The Neon Demon hammers home the visual splendor to perfection, the plot does venture into a bit of abstract thinking, forcing the viewer to start toying with metaphors and deeper themes. Seeing it just once will only scratch the surface that what Refn is attempting to accomplish. It’s a two-hour gallery of disturbing images, you might want to keep under lock and key or at least a dark room. In one scene, a wildcat somehow manages to enter Jesse’s hotel room and she gets dismissed by Keanu Reeves’ seedy owner, Hank. While completely random on the surface, its presence is there for a much larger metaphor at hand.
It’s scenes like those that will frustrate some audiences, claiming that Refn’s screenplay is non-existent. When really, the ambiguity is richly crafted, stringing together an unorthodox narrative that shifts more towards style than substance. Refn plays stronger to his direction than his writing. Just examine Drive, which he solely directed, to Only God Forgives when he played double duty. There’s a vast difference between the two and The Neon Demon slides towards the latter. The main difference between Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon, is this film emerges in a more confident, albeit bizarre package.
Adding more character to this already emotionally messed-up film is the electric retro score by Cliff Martinez. It plays to the fears and anxieties of certain scenes like a fiddle, specifically during Jesse’s dream-like situations and moreso in the final act. That’s when Winding Refn takes off all the brakes and it’s gratuitious nature might be a bit too much to handle. Yes, it visually adresses to what odds these characters are willing to go when faced with such jealousy. But the question remains whether or not the envelope needed to be pushed to this level to achieve the effect, which ultimately goes full psycho. The climax is not for those with a weak stomach. Literally.
Proud, polarizing and positively pretentious, The Neon Demon dares to go against the grid with a narrative that’s biggest strength is its unforgettably disturbing visual palette. Nicholas Winding Refn has delivered a film that will be talked about for some time and rightfully so.