Lars Von Trier once declared himself the best director in the world (he’s up there), but his fellow Dane, Nicolas Winding Refn, seemingly has taken it upon himself to steal the title of most controversial/loud mouth filmmaker. Nic Winding Refn, or NFR (his self created watermark), snatched up a cult of cinephiles (including me) with a bit of the ‘ol ultra violence in his 2011 LA noir, Drive, and then went on to alienate more than half of them with the sparse Only God Forgives (2013). Since then I’ve watched almost all of his films, and while I don’t like all of them, I think he’s one of the most interesting director’s working today.
The polarization of his work seems to stem from the fact that Nic Winding Refn is Nic Winding Refn’s biggest fan *eye rollllllll*, but I find his confidence strangely endearing. His new joint, The Neon Demon, similarly has split cinephiles but I. Do. Declare. it’s fantastic and a future cult classic. The Neon Demon may very well be Refn’s most delicious platter yet.
Refn sets his sights to Hollywood as 16 year old Jesse (a terrific Elle Fanning) begins to pursue her career as a model. It’s not in his DNA to make a coming of age film so he’s made a coming of death film. Refn creates image after image with the aesthetic of a diorama that’s been carefully covered in glitter and blood. Natasha Braier’s cinematography looks like a Mario Bava shot fashion magazine and is among the best of the decade. Refn’s Hollywood fairy tale is about an eternal battle of beauty vs horror within internal and external forces.
The first act might as well be titled NWR’s Heathers as he satirically smears the gossipy hierarchy of Los Angeles. The blunt deadpan humor has a sinister smirk to it that had me cackling. Christina Hendricks as the owner of a model agency looks at a group of girls waiting to be interviewed and tells one of them to go home. Then there’s Keanu Reeves as a sleazy owner of a motel repeatedly uttering “that’s some real Lolita shit.” These are just appetizers for the main course of models who will stop at nothing to climb the ladder of fame. At the bleeding heart of all of this madness is Elle Fanning’s Jesse, a girl plucked from a Disney fairy tale (she recently played Aurora in Maleficient!). While there’s a satirical bite to the first act, Jesse’s arrival into Los Angeles mostly recalls the romantic dreaminess of Mulholland Drive.
Refn constructs his LA with iconographies and motifs. This and Drive are indebted to classic noirs and what Refn captures well here, specifically in the first half, is a sense of location. Jesse riding through the LA streets and then staring down at the city gives us an overview of Refn’s dollhouse: the motel, the giant office buildings, the glamorous sets, the sunny LA streets, a mansion. All are familiar staples of noir and Hollywood cinema, but Refn pours his own specific glaze of glittered giallo gore over it to create a unique vision.
Mirrors and swimming pool reflections signify the themes of identity and beauty ( reminiscent of 3 Women), while also forcing the viewer to submit as a voyeur of this dream world. The moon and eyes signify our modern culture of media/social media fixation that is never not watching. With this in mind it becomes a film about performance as identity and how it’s shaped by forces in and out of our control.
While Jesse navigates the politics of LA’s modelfield, Cliff Martinez’s pulsing synth score warns of bloodshed and melded with the eye popping visuals it creates an abstract entity, the “neon demon.” The end of the first act signals a change as Jesse walks down the runway for the first time. The camera firmly focuses on her face. There are no other models or cameras or crowd. She’s surrounded by darkness as she approaches a glowing triangle in the distance and she watches kaleidoscopic images of herself. Like the apes approaching the monolith, she nears this modelith and evolves into a higher being: A supermodel. It’s a supremely cinematic sequence seemingly ripped straight from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.
It’s in this moment that The Neon Demon reveals what it’s about: the reclaiming of beauty inside power dynamics and the battle between internal and external forces in this world. For Jesse, it’s a moment of validation where she grows from wanting to become like “them” to them wanting to become “her.” This is when the film leaves it’s romantic tone and enters into an abstract Texas Chainsaw Massacre nightmare with Suspiria visuals (both in my top 5 horror films). It does Blood and Black Lace better than Blood and Black Lace.
Bella Heathcoate and Abbey Lee as rival models have a deliciously fun time skewering these archetypes, but it’s Jena Malone as a makeup artist who slays as an almost vampiric figure of jealousy. Refn subverts the male gaze by making men mere plot points (a position women in film are all too often reduced to) and making women the controlling figures in subtle ways while men still think they’re in control.
While it is mostly linear, Refn prioritizes visual storytelling, colors, motifs, and sounds over traditional plot and dialogue. He’s taken midnight movie content (girl goes to new city and there’s strange occurrences, necrophilia, grisly deaths, sex etc.) and melded that surface level of “trash” content with symbolic visuals of “high art.” It is at once both minimalist and obnoxiously loud in it’s intentions, creating a messy but bloody fun concoction. Refn is not telling us anything knew about the city of dreams, but he’s cooked it up in such a devilishly fun way that it tastes like nothing I’ve seen. In the third act he stirs his cauldron too fast and doesn’t quite equally conjure the pulpiness of the material with his dreamlike abstractions. But oh boy is it somethin.
Refn’s filmography is told through visuals of great craft but with controversial–perhaps shallow–content. While Drive remains his greatest overall film and a masterpiece, The Neon Demon melds his craft/content best because its central conceit is that appearance in life is what speaks the loudest, not what’s inside. The narrative and thematic content is strengthened through this formal strategy.
Not once do the characters sit down and discuss beauty versus horror, but most of the images are about that clash. Refn does this while channeling low and high art. The opening shot is Jesse lying down on an expensive couch with bloody makeup on her neck. Refn cuts back to a photographer and we now understand the context. The image creates an intersection of death, beauty, violence, the male gaze, and the desire for artistic perfection. Refn then goes on to let these ideas battle in both form and content.
The Neon Demon exists in a realm of fairy tale dreams that intersects at the place where nightmares eat those dreams. Refn’s improvisational plotting and character decisions in the second half has highs and lows. While its meeting of trashy low/beautiful high art has thematic strengths, it causes some narrative and character deficiencies that stop it from entering the “this is a goddamn masterpiece” phere. But I suspect Refn likes it kind of messy and incomplete; I kinda do too. It must be said that all of its glitter and gore wouldn’t be as impactful without the magnificent performance of Elle Fanning that is tragic to watch as her innocence becomes consumed by the nightmare slowly covering the LA sky. The Neon Demon is a vision and reflection of beauty and horror in modern youth that could only come from the mad and egotistical mind of Nicolas Winding Refn. I LOVED it.
Grade: A- I want to be Elle Fanning when I grow up.