There aren't many directors as bold, bombastic or divisive than Danish auteur Nicholas Winding Refn. While his breakout hit 'Drive' (2011) is universally loved, it also doesn’t entirely represent his aesthetic as a director, ranging from the explosive, as in the superb ‘Bronson’ (2008), to the uncompromising, as in ‘Only God Forgives’ (2013). The latter film left audiences divided, most finding its rejection of narrative and its style over substance obnoxious, while others - like myself - celebrated its audacity and violent beauty. Regardless, any new film from Refn is an experience, and ‘The Neon Demon’ builds on the reputation of the director, not just as an artist but as a brand. The responses have once again been divisive, but this time I have found myself in a more difficult position evaluating it. As it turn out, ‘The Neon Demon’ is not a film so easily unpacked.
Jesse (Elle Fanning, 'Trumbo','Super 8') is sixteen and strikingly beautiful. Moving to LA with the aim of becoming a model, she instantly grabs the attention of the fashion world for her natural beauty and innocence. Caught between the excess of the fashion world and her living in a dangerous and cheap motel, Jesse begins to learn just how useful a commodity her beauty is, setting her on the path to greater success and greater enemies.
It should come as no surprise that Refn’s command of image and sound is still frighteningly sublime, though his control here is more akin to ‘Drive’ than ‘Only God Forgives’. Every frame is absolutely gorgeous, every move of the camera a piece of cinematic poetry. Refn and cinematographer Natasha Braier craft a neon-drenched fever dream evocative of David Lynch’s ‘Mulholland Drive’, populated by figures of alien-like beauty gliding through familiar yet abstract space, aided enormously by Cliff Martinez’s pulsing, magnificent score. Refn and Braier also cleverly manipulate and subvert the idea of the male gaze that is such a part of the fashion world, instead placing the focus on the female gaze. From the moment she enters the film, Jesse is seen as a threat to her peers, especially by models Gigi (Australian Bella Heathcote, 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies', 'Dark Shadows') and Sarah (Abbey Lee, 'Gods of Egypt', 'Mad Max: Fury Road'). The relationships between the women in this film are animalistic and furious, the older models constantly aware of the ticking time bomb of age that cruelly threatens their jobs and their livelihood, represented by Jesse herself.
Much like ‘Only God Forgives’, much about ‘The Neon Demon’ seems esoteric or impenetrable, albeit with a clearer narrative to follow and definite character arcs to explore. Refn and fellow screenwriters Mary Laws and Polly Stenham carefully chart every narrative turn in the film, so that when the neon dream becomes a vicious nightmare bordering on sci-fi body horror, it never feels out of place. If ‘The Neon Demon’ owes much to Lynch’s ‘Mulholland Drive’, it owes just as much to Jonathan Glazer’s ‘Under The Skin’ in how it seamlessly mixes a world fixed in reality with blasts of the bizarre and fantastical, albeit with Refn’s trademark bombast.
Elle Fanning is absolutely magnetic as Jesse. She has the beauty and the innocence, but the detail in her performance and the rigour with which she attacks the dark turn Jesse takes demonstrates an intelligence and fierceness that’s unexpectedly dangerous. Jena Malone ('The Hunger Games' series) also excels as Ruby, a make-up artist who becomes Jesse’s protector and guide through the underworld, giving her most controlled and complex performance so far. The men in the film are basically props in the narrative, but while this might be a misstep in any other film, it works here to its advantage, and the entire male cast (including Keanu Reeves, Desmond Harrington and Karl Glusman) understand this. Surprisingly though, the film is stolen by Aussie Abbey Lee, who gives a quiet, menacing and strangely heartbreaking performance as Sarah, a model on the tipping point of being made obsolete by Jesse and willing to protect her career by any means. Without barely uttering a word, you can see the depths and darkness exploding underneath the surface. Fanning might be the star of the film, but Lee is its secret weapon and most striking discovery.
Much like ‘Only God Forgives’, much about the film seems esoteric or impenetrable, albeit with a clearer narrative to follow and definite character arcs to explore.
This should make ‘The Neon Demon’ a slam dunk for Refn - a technically flawless film with challenging and fascinating content and terrific performances. However, a narrative turn halfway through the film threatens to dismantle all that good work, and in it lies the conundrum of the film. After carefully calibrating the way women are presented and treated, it explodes with acts of horrific sexual violence, an almost token lesbian moment and a disturbing act of perversity. While it is possible to dramaturgically justify it all, I couldn’t help feeling that this was one indulgent step too far, and found a lot of it hard to justify. In its last quarter, the film turns back towards the sublime, but that section leaves a bad aftertaste.
After defending ‘Only God Forgives’ for so long, I'm unexpectedly divided in my feelings about Nicholas Winding Refn’s follow-up. 80% is highly-accomplished cinema - formally exciting, technically breathtaking, thematically challenging and beautifully performed. The remaining 20% though genuinely haunts me, a difficult section to unpack and justify. Part of me loved this film, and part of me really didn’t, and those two sides can’t come to a compromise yet. Perhaps for this reason more than any do I think ‘The Neon Demon’ is an absolute must-see - it’s the purest example of how cinema is an entirely subjective art form, and regardless of what any reviewer says, one should see a film and judge it on their terms. It wouldn’t surprise me if that’s exactly what Refn intended.