The Neon Demon
2016, R, 117 min. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Starring Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Abbey Lee, Bella Heathcote, Karl Glusman, Keanu Reeves, Desmond Harrington, Alessandro Nivola.
REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., June 24, 2016
I have come to the conclusion that Nicolas Winding Refn doesn't give a fuck what you think about his films. After the success of 2011's Drive, Refn confounded audiences with 2013's Only God Forgives, a color kaleidoscope of brutality and slow-burning excess that polarized every single person who watched it. "All style and no substance," seemed to be the most popular (and tired) salvo leveled against Refn, which is interesting when you look at his earlier work, specifically his Pusher trilogy, a brilliant and visceral examination of low-level drug dealers in Copenhagen – films heavily driven by narrative. This new Refn though, reborn with 2008's Bronson (his masterpiece), heralded a marriage between style and substance, and he is increasingly becoming obsessed with the former, while letting the latter just kind of be. He's like the bizarro version of Wes Anderson’s same meticulous attention to detail, but while you can tell Anderson wants to entertain you with a story, Refn is clearly more interested in mood and highly stylized provocation. With The Neon Demon, he more or less succeeds.
In a tale as old as Hollywood, 16-year-old Jesse (Fanning) arrives in L.A. with dreams of a high-fashion modeling career. Staying in a run-down, but incredibly art-directed motel, run by a super-sleazy Keanu Reeves (doing what he can with what he's given), Jesse gets the help she needs in Ruby (Malone), a makeup artist with connections. Quickly, she becomes the new It Girl, much to the chagrin of Ruby's friends Sarah (Lee) and Gigi (Heathcoate), two models whose career arcs appear to be waning. There are creepy fashion photographers (Harrington, hilarious), creepy fashion designers (Nivola, also hilarious), and well, let's just say everyone is pretty much creepy (and hilarious) in The Neon Demon, except perhaps for Jesse's friend Dean (Glusman), whom she met on the internet and who takes pictures of her half-naked and covered in blood. Predators abound in the film, most obviously exemplified by a mountain lion who gets into Jesse's motel room to wreak havoc, and it can often be a strange film to unpack. Is it a straight-up horror movie? A mockery of artifice? Is the fact that the film traffics in nothing but artifice a mockery of that mockery?
Only Refn and film grad students know for sure, but what The Neon Demon does do is offer up a magnificently beautiful bauble, full of glittering diamonds, hard candy, and fresh meat. With cinematographer Natasha Braier, Refn goes full Kubrick, all slow zooms and meticulously over-crafted sets. And frequent music collaborator Cliff Martinez adds a dizzying soundtrack that hypnotizes and jars with equal measure. In short, it's basically a feature-length music video with some dialogue and a bloody ending, as written by Dario Argento, and shot by Helmut Newton. Which is right up my alley, which is probably saying too much.