Nicolas Winding Refn is back with his 10th feature, The Neon Demon. The film is a visually startling, emotionally void tale about the dark, tumultuous holes one can fall into while traversing the fashion industry. Refn isn’t known for his films having substance in the traditional sense, but they do favor excessive glitz and style. He tends to craft his stories around images he wants to show rather than the story dictating cinematography. Refn certainly demonstrated this in Drive and does it once more in The Neon Demon.
Normally a movie this devoid of substance would be annoying, but this movie is different … it’s special. Here is an aesthetically appealing spectacle that’s both unsettling and breathtaking at the same time. You don’t want to watch, but at the same time, it’s impossible to look away.
Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a naïve, eager, and pure 16-year old who moves to Hollywood and instantly lands a modeling gig. After a photo shoot that’s more foreboding than we initially realize, Jesse befriends Ruby (Jena Malone), a makeup artist who has offered to take Jesse under her wing and show her the ropes. One of her initial moves is to drag Jesse to a party that night where she meets two ultra-competitive and vapid models named Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), who are immediately jealous of the younger Jesse. Jesse lands a meeting with a high profile agency and is told by Jan (Christina Hendricks) she needs to lie about her age and say she’s 19. And this is where the decent begins.
A fashion designer describes Jesse as “a diamond in a sea of glass.” The same can be said about the cinematography in The Neon Demon. The creativity is rich, the symmetry in the framing of each shot so precise that Kubrick himself would approve of Refn’s obsessive eye. And to the devastating use of lighting, Refn’s film is visually decadent.
There is a scene in the movie where Jesse is trapped in a motel room. The owner (played by a sleazy Keanu Reeves) is forcing his way into the room next to hers, and the audience can hear him assaulting a woman. Refn shot this scene by having Jesse go up to the shared wall and place her ear up against the wall. Most directors would have just stopped at that point, but Refn isn’t most directors. Refn illuminates the wall blood red, and thins the wall out to the depth of paper or canvas, conveying a sense of not only the brutality of the act but how helpless Jesse felt at that moment without her even having to say a single word.
The deliberate pacing gives the impression that this all could be a dream, a very violent, dark, and twisted dream. Refn sedates the audience just enough, enhancing the shock of some of the most violent scenes of the year. The narrative, at most, is incredibly simplistic. Fanning, Malone, Bella Heathcote, and Aubrey Lee all portray their characters with such little emotion that the audience is not attached to any of them. It’s as if they morphed from portraying people to portraying images, beautiful, twisted, dark, and sadistic.
Now for those who are fans of Refn, especially when he pushes the envelope, no need to worry because he takes what’s acceptable and pushes it to the limit. This film has everything from multiple stabbings, to thrown up eyeballs, deepthroating a knife, and morgue necrophilia.
Some may accuse this film of misogyny. I agree. But that’s the point Refn is trying to make to the audience. Hollywood can be incredibly misogynistic, and there is a dark side to the town most don’t want to think about.