Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cast: Elle scinanning, Abbey Lee, Bella Heathcote, Jena Malone, Keanu Reeves, Karl Glusman, Christina Hendricks, Desmond Harrington, Alessandro Nivola
Running Time: 117 minutes
Release Date: July 8th
The characters that stalk the impeccably lit corners of the Danish provocateur’s latest work care little for boundaries and lots for themselves. Refn’s depiction of the vacuity, narcissism and desperation that he suggests permeate the fashion industry isn’t especially revelatory or original, yet each frame oozes with atmosphere and unflinching unease.
Built around a sixteen-year-old small-town girl with big-city dreams (Elle Fanning, excellent), The Neon Demon constructs itself like a grim fairytale. Monsters prowl in many forms as Fanning’s aspiring model makes an immediate impact, arousing bad behaviour in just about everyone around her. Her Jesse is both sympathetic and sour, a lost soul who might be as toxic as the environment she comes to find herself trapped in. Fanning plays her as something of a cipher, rarely betraying what’s going on beneath the surface while also maintaining a sense of innocence even when a darker side comes into play. She is a mirror best avoided yet people cannot help but gaze; most notably her terrifying otherworldly rivals expertly realised by Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote, both drawing on their own experience as models.
Arguably an excuse for Refn to satirise with blood-soaked dress-up, The Neon Demon isn’t terribly concerned with plot. As Keanu Reeves – here playing at his scuzziest – noted in a recent interview, his director is not one to give his heroes an easy ride. It’s fascinating to watch what Refn – alongside co-screenwriters Mary Laws and Polly Stenham – puts poor Jesse through. That said, he appears more interested in creating and exploring a very specific aesthetic. Drive is popular because it’s cool – the music, the look, the audacity of coating a fairly basic story in such gloss. Only God Forgives is less obviously appealing but Refn paints it like a master craftsman. He takes you from your seat and guides you so far, only to leave you to be absorbed or flee.
The Neon Demon, from its lengthy opening crawl, is drenched in tone. The exceptional work of cinematographer Natasha Braier and composer Cliff Martinez combine to create the ultimate in ‘style over substance’, a defiant repurposing of that criticism. Sure, Refn will insist that he’s Saying Something about fashion, about women, about envy and greed and lust and power and death and decay and all that, and he does play well with those concepts but The Neon Demon works best when you treat it first and foremost as a sensory experience.
Though eventually disposable, Jesse is intriguing because of her attitude towards beauty. At one point she notes apathetically and arrogantly that women would kill to look like her, but could only possibly hope to emerge as a second-rate version. The film she finds herself in is top of its avant-garde class when it comes to illustrating a surface that ultimately haunts the viewer long after it plays out in a Sia-soaked haze. You’ll swear you’ll never watch it again, that you won’t go back to this deeply uncomfortable place, right up until you do.