Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film is an arch critique of the fashion industry – a target that you might well describe as low-hanging fruit – as well as being a brooding post-modern fairy tale that eventually descends into bad-trip-blood-curdling horror. It’s also a significant improvement on the messy pomposity of his previous film Only God Forgives, a work that looked great but struggled with its own sense of self-importance for an hour before eventually disappearing up its own backside. By contrast The Neon Demon is even more stylish, and it also has an even, consistently-unsettling tone, which to my mind is preferable to throwing together sporadic moments of extreme violence and hoping for the best (though as you’d probably expect from Refn there are some of those here too). Just as pleasingly it contains a number of fairly interesting characters, such as Elle Fanning’s naive young model Jesse, newly-arrived in Los Angeles a month after turning sixteen and seemingly destined to be corrupted by the fashion industry, if she can negotiate a few weeks in a seedy, barely-secure motel first. She is our heroine, and she even has a knight in shining armour willing to do her bidding, though this isn’t exactly the kind of world or the kind of film in which such people turn up in the nick of time to save the day. Then there’s Ruby (Jena Malone), a make-up artist who beautifies both live models and dead bodies in her two jobs, and whose magnanimous friendship with the newcomer never once seems genuine. And also Ruby’s two model friends Gigi and Sarah (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee respectively), a pair of otherworldly superbitches who have no interest in hiding their jealousy and contempt for the younger, naturally-prettier Jesse, before later descending into all kinds of terrible, eye-popping behaviour.
The screenplay by Refn, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham unsympathetically (and somewhat predictably) portrays the fashion industry as being chock full of rude, self-serving, vapid arseholes, and Jesse comes across quite a few of them. Not just the female models – who are the easiest and most common targets for such attacks – but also a male designer and an uber-serious and in-demand male photographer, whose inflated opinion of his own artistry – coupled with a pair of wandering hands – marks him out as being among the more detestable characters here. That said there’s little distinction in this story between the seediness and unpleasantness of the fashion industry and LA more generally, in the sense that there are non-fashion industry characters who pose just as much of a threat to Jesse. Special mention here must go to Keanu Reeves, who is pretty good in a supporting role as a sleazy motel manager; this slimeball could just as easily be a character from Refn’s earlier film Drive.
As I said above it’s very stylish. Per Winding Refn’s other recent movies there’s a glossy, slick, ultrabright look to The Neon Demon, and it’s wholly in keeping with the high fashion milieu, while also simultaneously allowing the director to pay homage to the lurid Italian giallo he dearly loves. This film is filled with striking, minimal images, most of which tend to isolate the main character. Sometimes these belong to psychedelic dream sequences, such as a bizarre pitch-black catwalk scene in which a throbbing, glowing symbol serves as the demonic presence of the title; under its glow Jesse is transformed from innocent ingenue to corrupted soul, and several shots here reminded me of Ben Wheatley’s A Field In England and Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin, two similarly post-modern horror films. Elsewhere there are larger-than-average sets that depict huge, swanky nightclubs, airy model agency offices, grand Hollywood mansions and expansive, minimally-decorated audition rooms and photography studios. It’s all very ‘wow’, with neon strip lighting, strobe effects and mirrors in abundance, but there’s definitely an emptiness and lack of character or warmth to most of these spaces, perhaps best shown up by the long shots occasionally employed by Director of Photography Natasha Braier; Jesse constantly looks lost and out of place amid her surroundings, even after she gets a foothold in the industry and her self-confidence grows. And yes: gradually, what with this being a Nicolas Winding Refn film and all, these pristine sets become stained with blood, first through minor cuts, then through grisly acts of violence, and finally through an exagerrated scene of menstruation. Blood seeps through this movie as a trickle and then a flood.
I have to admit I wasn’t actually expecting to like The Neon Demon, despite all the positive reviews I’ve seen and heard, but I did and I’ve been thinking about it on and off for a week or so now, especially with regard to some of the more striking images. Fanning offers further confirmation that she’s a developing talent worth watching; she was also pretty good in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, and proves adept at acting with her mouth here: just watch how many times she allows a little curl of the lip or the slight hint of a self-satisfied smile to foreshadow her character’s later transformation/corruption. Malone, meanwhile, is a menacing presence: her threatening nature seems to be exaggerated as her motives are partly hidden from the audience; Reeves’s motel manager, by contrast, is scary but he is at least completely transparent.
Refn benefits once again from an imaginative, stirring electro score by Cliff Ramirez, and the sound design and editing is excellent throughout. At times it’s pulpy, at times it’s camp, at times it’s exploitative, at times Refn’s will to shock the audience and break taboos just seems faintly ludicrous, and it constantly lures you into assuming there’s a lot of style and very little substance, but in actual fact The Neon Demon has been put together with considerable skill, and to my surprise it’s one of the more enjoyable and memorable films that I’ve seen recently. I’ll catch it again, for sure.
Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn.
Written by: Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws, Polly Stenham.
Starring: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Karl Glusman, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Keanu Reeves, Desmond Harrington, Christina Hendricks.
Cinematography: Natasha Braier.
Editing: Matthew Newman.
Music: Cliff Martinez.
Running Time: 117 minutes.