Odds are, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn isn’t going to make another Drive (2011). For all the critical acclaim and accolades the film and director were justly given, it should be clear after The Neon Demon that 2013’s widely divisive Only God Forgives isn’t going to be the outlier in Refn’s English language filmography. His newest film is the type of ambitious, overabundant and hyper-stylized show that will both enthrall and repulse in equal measure. For every breathtaking moment, there’s a gag-inducing indulgence. Love it at your own risk.
A new young face in Los Angeles, young model Jesse (Elle Fanning) immediately falls in with a group of instantly jealous peers, including Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee). The only one seeming to care about her is the ever-present makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone), giving her guidance in navigating the vicious and bizarre modeling world. This being a Refn film, the plot isn’t necessarily all too important to focus on, as it’s mainly used as a delivery system for atmosphere, bold statements and wonderfully lit scenes of both beauty and graphic messiness. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing; Refn’s all mad style, all the time approach has made for some great scenes in previous films – think the elevator or getaway scenes in Drive or Bronson fighting the guards in Bronson (2008) – and it’s true in Demon as well. An early scene where Jessi is brought by the others to a bizarre party has exactly the momentum and energy needed to it, their characters scarcely but boldly lit in a strobing red light as Cliff Martinez’s score pulses and warps around them. The looks they give each other in that sequence alone does more characterization than any amount of stilted dialogue (of which no character is immune) throughout the film.
There’s just too many ideas and points to make for anything to cohere together over the course of almost two hours. Between the modeling itself, its sleazy photographers, Jesse’s age, the creepiness of her admirers, the jealousy of the other models, the terrible living conditions Jesse finds herself in, things are more likely to be glossy and blood stained where there could have been something more than skin deep.
The cast does their best to fit themselves to Refn’s aesthetic, Malone in particular committing wholeheartedly to all the craziness of the character and gruesome plot developments. Christina Hendrix basically appears in a cameo as a modeling agent, but gets off one of the best lines and Keanu Reeves has some fun playing a gross motel manager taking advantage of his situation. Fanning’s blank slate starts to get more shading through the film, turning out some great work in another striking sequence during a runway fashion show – all mirrors, lights, shapes, shadows and silhouettes.
A lot of credit has to be given to Refn’s stalwart composer Cliff Martinez and cinematographer Natasha Braier in her first collaboration with him. Martinez fills almost every silence with a similar 80’s synth from their other films together, but once the horror elements kick in, the score responds appropriately, ramping up the tension and selling the moments with a loud, noisy uneasiness. Braier, for her part, is one of the best parts of the experience, taking the audience into the world with sharp colors, striking imagery and an unwillingness to flinch when needing to present the director’s most challenging and potentially upsetting sequences.
The spare images in its best scenes brings Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin to mind, but where that film’s enigmatic femme fatale was an engaging and intoxicating mystery, Demon‘s Jesse is often told why she’s so interesting, but rarely shows it. Unlike Tom Hardy’s charisma-oozing Bronson, Drive‘s effortless cool, or Only God Forgives‘ guilt and defeatism, there’s nothing to grab onto here, nothing to connect with. And while keeping an audience at arms length is fine, there’s not much beyond the coldness that the film keeps pressing.
Where the film ultimately stumbles is its heavy handed shocks and grotesque turns – provocativeness doesn’t equal depth and shocking depravity shouldn’t excuse eye-rolling metaphors. And to say it gets very dark and disturbing would be an understatement, here’s the warning for the faint of both heart and stomach. It may be worth seeking out spoilers to find out if you can handle some of the more extreme moments.
For fans of Refn, The Neon Demon is very much a product of its auteur, going deep into his psyche and pulling out all the beauty and madness he possesses. Props to Amazon (partnering with Broad Green Pictures for the theatrical release) for picking it up for distribution – it’s the kind of movie most studios wouldn’t really think about opening on over 1,000 screens. It’s just safe to say that as many people will enjoy the craziness, a good amount of them will either be too distanced from it or too grossed out to even care.