Keep up-to-date on your favourite artists and movies, track gig and release dates, and join in the conversation.
Joel interviews the MIFF team to find out what's in this year's program announcement! Click to listen to our special SWITCHCast ep now.x
review, The Neon Demon, The, Neon, Demon, film, movie, latest movies, new movie, movie ratings, current movie reviews, latest films, recent movies, current movies, movie critics, new movie reviews, latest movie reviews, latest movies out, the latest movies, review film, latest cinema releases, Australian reviews, cinema, cinema reviews, Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Abbey Lee, Bella Heathcote, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Nicolas Winding Refn film rating




By Daniel Lammin
16th October 2016

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.

RELEASE DATE: 20/10/2016
RUN TIME: 1h 58m
CAST: Elle Fanning
Jena Malone
Abbey Lee
Bella Heathcote
Christina Hendricks
Keanu Reeves
DIRECTOR: Nicolas Winding Refn
WRITERS: Nicolas Winding Refn
Mary Laws
Polly Stenham
PRODUCERS: Lene Børglum
Sidonie Dumas
Vincent Maraval
Nicolas Winding Refn
SCORE: Cliff Martinez
Cosmic Sin - A film that delivers on the promise of its title
TRENDINGCOSMIC SINA film that delivers on the promise of its title
Pocahontas - 25 years later, the colours of the wind are fading
TRENDINGPOCAHONTAS25 years later, the colours of the wind are fading
Who the hell is Bloodshot? - A primer on Vin Diesel's superhero
TRENDINGWHO THE HELL IS BLOODSHOT?A primer on Vin Diesel's superhero
Revisiting 'Dark City' 20 years later - The most underrated and influential sci-fi film ever?
TRENDINGREVISITING 'DARK CITY' 20 YEARS LATERThe most underrated and influential sci-fi film ever?
Gallipoli - A powerful and important film remembered
TRENDINGGALLIPOLIA powerful and important film remembered
The World at War - The landmark documentary series restored in high definition
TRENDINGTHE WORLD AT WARThe landmark documentary series restored in high definition
Malila: The Farewell Flower - Contemplating love and loss
Batman: The Long Halloween, Part Two - New villains, same problems
Buckley's Chance - Not worth a chance
Calm with Horses - A savage and sensitive Irish crime drama
TRENDINGCALM WITH HORSESA savage and sensitive Irish crime drama
Shiva Baby - A comedy of discomfort
TRENDINGSHIVA BABYA comedy of discomfort
The Glass Room - Stunning yet soulless
TRENDINGTHE GLASS ROOMStunning yet soulless
Some Kind of Heaven - A bizarre lens into a Floridian retirement village
TRENDINGSOME KIND OF HEAVENA bizarre lens into a Floridian retirement village
25 Free-to-Watch Short Horror Films - The scariest shorts we uncovered online
TRENDING25 FREE-TO-WATCH SHORT HORROR FILMSThe scariest shorts we uncovered online
The Swallows of Kabul - Unflinching and gorgeously animated
TRENDINGTHE SWALLOWS OF KABULUnflinching and gorgeously animated
Cerulean Blue - Promising debut for a new voice in Australian cinema
TRENDINGCERULEAN BLUEPromising debut for a new voice in Australian cinema
The Violin Player - Sex and strings
2:22 - Mind-bending metaphysical mumbo-jumbo
TRENDING2:22Mind-bending metaphysical mumbo-jumbo
Birds of Prey - I'm here to report a terrible crime: DC has saved cinema
TRENDINGBIRDS OF PREYI'm here to report a terrible crime: DC has saved cinema
La Dolce Vita - Not as sweet as you'd think 60 years on
TRENDINGLA DOLCE VITANot as sweet as you'd think 60 years on
© 2011 - 2021 midnightproductions
All rights reserved

Support SWITCH | Disclaimer | Contact Us!