Nicholas Winding Refn personifies what many would argue filmmaking should be; writers and directors developing original ideas and making the films they want to make, not beholden to the whims of studio executives or the banality of mainstream audience expectations. Certainly at this stage of his career, Refn continues to enjoy the level of creative freedom that most filmmakers can only dream about. The fact that he is able to get his films into cinemas – obviously in large part due to the success of Drive – is something to be cherished at a time when so many others find their work (which is often exceptionally good) confined to other forms of distribution. There is still no other viewing platform that is a patch on the immersive experience that cinemas can provide and a film such as The Neon Demon certainly needs to be seen on the big screen. It is bold, bizarre, bloody and beautiful, but will no doubt leave many people cold.
What starts out as a highly stylised critique of the superficiality of the modelling industry morphs into something much more sinister by the time the end credits start rolling. Elle Fanning stars as Jesse, a 16-year-old who has lobbed into Los Angeles all alone, trying to establish herself in the fashion world. Her naivety and natural beauty make her unique in a world where body enhancements are de rigueur in the interests of career longevity. Whilst photographers fawn and make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone) becomes infatuated with the newbie, the other models (played by Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee) are far from impressed and set out to destroy her. The pace is glacial at times, with every shot drawn out with a meticulousness that some will no doubt find excruciating. But, even when there is nothing happening, it is hard to look away because there is always a lingering sense of menace lurking beneath the surface that eventually erupts amid moments of cannibalism and necrophilia.
Despite the darkness of what transpires, The Neon Demon is bursting with colour, Refn’s use of music is excellent and everything is staged with a precision that brings a sense of hyper-reality to proceedings. Dialogue is minimal and the performances are hard to gauge because the characters are so stilted; every line delivered in the same deliberate manner, devoid of any emotional resonance or self-awareness. That is not to say the performances are bad because the personality (or lack thereof) that each character possesses is a statement about the vacuousness of the industry and those within it. Fanning is fine as the new kid in town and Malone is particularly good as a woman who takes Jesse under her wing with intentions that are far from honourable. Of all the characters, creepy motel manager Hank (Keanu Reeves) is the liveliest and least likeable (which is saying something in a movie where almost everybody is grotesque). Hank is a sleaze who preys on the female guests and whilst this is not the first time that Reeves has played such a despicable dude (check out Sam Raimi’s The Gift), I don’t know that many other actors would be prepared to take on such a character. Jesse’s sort-of-boyfriend Dean (Karl Glusman) is the most sympathetic character in the film, while Alessandro Nivola’s fashion designer leads the way in superciliousness and preposterous pomposity as Refn rams home the message about the nature of those who work in the industry.
There is nothing typical about The Neon Demon and Refn, who also wrote the original story and the screenplay, certainly can’t be accused of ‘selling ‘out’ or compromising his vision in the interests a chasing a broader audience. Despite the subject matter and the themes at play, Refn never resorts to cheap titillation and it is only a couple of scenes near the end of the film that push it into R18+ territory. Sure, some things don’t make sense – such as why Jesse stays in the motel run by Hank even after it has become obvious that he’s a threat – but with so many moments of startling beauty, this is the work of a filmmaker with a unique take on the world around him who has crafted a completely refreshing cinematic experience that mesmerises from the opening moments. A smorgasbord of exquisite colour, lighting and composition, The Neon Demon is a work of art that will no doubt prove divisive, but is most definitely worth watching.