This is a motion picture you will either be on the same wavelength or not. That’s usually the case with any Nicolas Winding Refn film whether it’s “Bronson,” “Drive” or “Only God Forgives,” but I imagine “The Neon Demon” will be his most divisive movie yet. As for myself, I was entranced with this movie from start to finish as it combines the visual aesthetics of a Gaspar Noe film with the dreaminess of a David Lynch one, and those elements come together to form something that is uniquely Refn. In a sea of movies out right now which feel largely underwhelming, “The Neon Demon” is a refreshing one with its undeniably strong visuals, and that’s even though it takes a very sharp left turn in the last half.
We are introduced to Jesse (Elle Fanning), an aspiring model looking to get into the Los Angeles modelling scene. Equipped with some striking pictures shot by her friend Dean (Karl Glusman), she succeeds in getting signed with top Hollywood agent Roberta Hoffman (Christina Hendricks) who encourages Jesse to lie about her age and is quick to dismiss other aspiring talents coldly and without a second thought. Soon Jesse comes to befriend makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone) who introduces her to the kinky club scene as well as a pair of models, Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), who are ruthless in their intent to stay relevant in an industry quick to chew them up and spit them out.
Essentially, “The Neon Demon” is Jesse’s descent into the hellish and shallow world of modelling as she becomes the envy of photographers and fashion designers in the industry and creates a cauldron of resentment for those who can only dream of having her natural beauty. That’s the thing; Jesse has a look that feels infinitely real compared to other models who have long since resorted to plastic surgery which has made them look like lifeless statues. How does a novice model make her way through such a cutthroat and friendless realm of existence? Well, Refn is not out to give us the definitive answer to that question, but the journey he takes us on gives us kind of an idea of what it could be like.
I loved the beautiful and yet clinical look Refn gives “The Neon Demon” as it is entrancing and immersive. We are sucked into a world that is not healthy for us, but we can’t turn away from it as, like Pandora’s Box, we have an insatiable desire to see what is inside. Colors abound as if he tried to combine the beautiful images from Noe’s and Dario Argento’s films (“Suspiria” in particular) and turn them into something original. This movie also benefits largely from the beautiful electronic score composed by Cliff Martinez which hugs these images while poking at the darkness lying beneath them.
Elle Fanning has long since distinguished herself from her equally famous sister Dakota, and her role here as Jesse is her most daring yet. Some will complain that all she does in “The Neon Demon” is just sit around and look beautiful, but that’s missing the point. What’s utterly fascinating about Elle’s portrayal is how she takes Jesse from being a seemingly innocent rookie in a business that can be quite cruel to someone who fiercely owns her beauty in a way that is as seamless as it is haunting. This is not a dialogue heavy movie, so Elle has to show this transition without words for the most part and she succeeds to where we cannot help but be horrified about what Jesse will become.
However, Elle is almost upstaged by Jena Malone who combines an earthly look with an almost alien one as makeup artist Ruby. Malone has always been a tremendous actress, and she makes Ruby a wondrous enigma of sorts as she reveals only so much about her character on the surface. As the movie goes on, Malone comes to exhibit a strong vulnerability as Ruby is denied the thing she desires most and ends up acting out in sheer desperation. Malone is riveting and fearless, and she shows no hesitation in embracing Ruby’s dark side.
Abbey Lee deserves credit for bringing unexpected depth to Sarah, a model slowly realizing she is now past her prime, as she sinks into a swamp of infinite envy and resentment. I liked how Bella Heathcote makes Gigi into a model who is unapologetic about the sacrifices she has made for her career and is fiercely defensive of her place in the industry. While Glusman doesn’t get to show a lot of range here as Dean, he does have some nice moments as a man trying to hold strong to his ideals of what real beauty should be. And even Keanu Reeves shows up as Jesse’s unsavory apartment manager Hank, a man John Wick would show no hesitation to beating the crap out of. Say what you will about Reeves’ acting skills; he’s much better here than he was in Eli Roth’s “Knock Knock.”
If there was anything that perplexed me the most about “The Neon Demon,” it was the last half where it suddenly turns into a Grand Guignol horror film. It’s like the movie suddenly turned into something completely different as we find the women in Jesse’s life determined to possess her natural beauty any way they can, and I mean any way. Granted, this is a Refn film so you have to expect the unexpected, but it bears repeating here as things take a direction that almost seems out of whack with what came before.
Many will keep trying to get answers from Refn in regards to the questions “The Neon Demon” casually leaves unanswered. Then again, this is not a movie designed to have easily answered questions as the viewer will have to use their own imaginations to decipher what they have just seen. The movie’s title alludes to an antagonist that can take on a variety of forms that even the real world can’t separate itself from. Or maybe it’s the one deep fear we have to conquer before moving on with life. Whatever the case, “The Neon Demon” in not a movie to be easily dismissed or forgotten. People will either like it or hate it, and I am not afraid to say that I liked it a lot.
* * * ½ out of * * * *
Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.