I don’t think there’s any filmmaker apart from Nicolas Winding Refn, whose films excels at just being pure experiences. I’ve always admired Refn’s work, but since Drive, he’s adopted this almost, dreamy and kaleidoscopic aesthetic, which has in-turn allowed him to deliver equally thought-provoking and narratively ambiguous films. His films usually seem to be about one theme but, the film he builds around that through a number of signature stylistic touches in what always interests me most, and if anything, The Neon Demon, follows on that same neon-lit path, he walked with both Drive and Only God Forgives.
Elle Fanning stars as Jesse, an innocent, naïve and gorgeous young girl who moves to Los Angeles just after her 16th birthday to launch a career as a model and quickly begins to experience almost instant success, which results in her soon facing the wrath of two ruthless models played by Abby Lee and Bella Heathcote, who despise her fresh-faced beauty. On top of that, she must contend with a seedy motel manager (Keanu Reeves) and a creepy photographer (Karl Glusman). As Jesse starts to take the fashion world by storm, her personality changes, but so does the world around her.
At heart, The Neon Demon seems to be about the emptiness about Hollywood and the fashion industry, but while I think the film is a commentary on all this, I don’t think Refn is out to give any sort of allegory on the fashion industry. For me, it’s merely a canvas for him to deliver a series of bright, often disturbing, yet completely unforgettable images. And that’s really what makes The Neon Demon so good.
From the opening shot, Refn throws you into face first into a neon-soaked, seductive and nightmarish approximation of L.A, that is inhabited by some very dangerous people. In Drive, you could atleast see the palm trees and empty boulevards, here, Refn is much more interested in shooting interiors, and man oh man, do they look gorgeous. I can’t comprehend how absolutely gorgeous this film looks. Each meticulously crafted shot is like elegant visual porn, highly texturized with an amazing color palette, all beating to the throbs and pulses of Cliff Martinez’s incredible synth score. And the fact that the visual style is so similar to both Drive and Only God Forgives, eventhough Refn used different cinematographers in all three films, shows just how much of a command he has on his vision and visual aesthetic.
But saying that The Neon Demon is just a series of bright, arresting images would be wrong, because I think there’s definitely something of substance here. Whether it’s the exploration of how Hollywood is a place full of shallow and superficial people willing to do anything to get ahead, or how it’s a place where innocence comes to die and only the most vicious survive. It doesn’t have the most fleshed-out story, but it has enough of a story to serve the purpose of Refn’s construct. I think it’s also worth noting that the characters do drive the story, and the performances all work well too. Though it’s Keanu Reeves (in a short-lived cameo) and Jena Malone who shine brightest as a creepy, pedophilic motel manager, and a shady make-up artist respectively.
Things do however, change drastically when the film enters into its third act and the film finally shows its true depraved colors. Discussing anything that happens here would be going into spoiler territory, but one thing I am sure of, is that this is where you will either love the movie even more, or flat-out hate it and possibly even feel sick. I happen to be in the latter category, which I guess speaks to how much of a sicko I am myself.
But ultimately, what I keep coming back to after watching The Neon Demon is how much of an experience it is. And that is really what makes Refn such a visionary filmmaker. That ability to completely suck you into his films, with the atmosphere, the music, the unforgettable imagery. This is bold, daring cinema, unlike anything out there.