'The Neon Demon'
Nicolas Winding Refn has carved out an amusing place for himself as a divisive art house provocateur over his last handful of movies. His films are practically pranks on a certain type of cinemagoer, and if ‘The Neon Demon’ isn’t the best movie from this odd chapter of Refn’s career, then it’s at least the sickest joke.
Essentially, Refn starts with an exploitation movie premise, something raw and simplistic with hints of deeper meaning that rarely boil over into carefully constructed commentaries. Then he shoots it with a coolly controlled abstract style that borrows liberally from esoteric influences, all in the name of elevating trash to hypnotic mood pieces. Strip the movies down to 70 minutes and remove the aesthetics, and these would be dirty drive-in flicks praised for even attempting to have subtext. Lavish on a more heightened style and they irritate critics and Cannes audiences for existing primarily on the surface, even though those same folks would praise them as grainy trash from decades ago.
‘The Neon Demon’ is set in the fashion industry in Los Angeles, and you’re not going to believe this but it’s a cruel world that rather literally chews up and spits out budding young starlets. Elle Fanning plays Jesse, a 16-year-old innocent who has come to town chasing stardom. The film opens with her first photo shoot, stretched out and covered in blood as a corpse to really lay on the foreshadowing. The photographer (Karl Glusman) is a sweet young boy who just wants to date Jesse, but she quickly ditches him once Christina Hendricks’ icky agent signs her and shoves her into the high fashion world. There she meets a makeup artist with an unsettling smile (Jena Malone) and a pair of Barbie doll models (Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote) with a vicious competitive streak and a vindictive sense of friendship. Clearly, things won’t go well from here. Necrophilia, cannibalism, surprise mountain lions, abusive photographers, and Keanu Reeves as an evil pervert are all on the way and are always lavishly photographed.
From Frame 1, Refn’s film is beautifully constructed and defined more by visual manipulation and a sumptuous soundtrack than any narrative or drama. Scenes unfold like hallucinations. Even establishing shots of locations are given creeping pans and unsettling soundscapes. It plays like something halfway between a Grimm fairy tale and a giallo. Colors are saturated, shadows run deep, compositions are symmetrical, and you better believe there’s plenty of neon. It’s all backed by a score from Cliff Martinez that’s deliberately Goblin-inspired to play like a vintage Argento nightmare with all the prog rock excess and creeptastic synth sounds that suggests.
Like that obvious influence, ‘The Neon Demon’ plays best as a sensory experience. The actors speak words, but if they were muffled sounds like a Charlie Brown teacher the story would be just as easy to follow. For the most part, the minimal lines of dialogue that pop up are either enigmatically vague or satirically harsh. That’s the thing about most Nicolas Winding Refn films; the pacing might be ponderous and the tone self-inflated, but they’re often ultimately just big sick jokes anyway.
The stabs at the fashion industry (and image-obsessed Los Angeles in general) are fairly obvious, just executed at an extreme to feel different. The performances are interesting but hardly naturalistic. Everyone sits perfectly posed in frame and speaks through a daze as if they’re in a waking dream. It’s another distancing stylistic choice done purely for atmosphere, and like most of what appears on screen in ‘The Neon Demon’, it will aggravate everyone who can’t find the filmmaker’s wavelength.
The whole sordid tale grows increasingly surreal and disgusting before eventually climaxing with one big gross gore gag that sums up the movie’s sentiments towards the fashion industry with a disgusting laugh. At that point, you either appreciate Refn’s appropriation of art house language to tell a dirty grindhouse tale or scream to the rafters at a filmmaker who’s a talented enough stylist that he forces critics and prestigious film festivals to take the grungy brand of entertainment that inspired him as a movie nerd seriously. I find it hilarious, but I already know several people who despise the movie for those same reasons and I have a feeling that Refn is courting both reactions.
That’s amusing, but the guy’s last three arty stunts (‘Valhalla Rising’, ‘Drive’ and ‘Only God Forgives’) essentially served up the same trick. Hopefully, someday the naturalism and momentum of the ‘Pusher’ trilogy, ‘Bleeder’ and ‘Bronson’ will return to the filmmaker’s work, but for now watching the Danish provocateur anger stuffy critics and introduce budding gorehounds to esoteric film aesthetics is just fine.