Nicolas Winding Refn is one of those directors that has a very definitive style and aesthetic. A Danish director, he has 10 feature film credits to his name, dating back to 1996. Internationally, he is known for the Pusher trilogy. Here in the U.S. he is most likely known for Bronson, which put Tom Hardy on the map, and Drive, a Ryan Gosling film that was highly stylized and featured a beautiful synth score. He lost his way a bit 2013 with Only God Forgives, which was all style and hardly any substance. His latest film, The Neon Demon, is a qualified return to form.
Refn casts his provocative lens on Hollywood and the competitive world of female models living there. Jesse (Elle Fanning) is the latest small town girl to arrive in Hollywood as an aspiring young model. Set up with an initial photo shoot by an aspiring photographer she met online, Dean (Karl Glusman), she soon falls in with Ruby (Jena Malone), the makeup artist, and her two of her friends who are models, Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote); she gets off on the wrong foot with the two of them, Gigi specifically. She gets an agency, headed by Roberta (Christina Hendricks), and soon sees her star begin to rise, catching the eye of casting directors and famous photographers like Jack (Desmond Harrington). Her ascent brings her into conflict with Gigi and Sarah, who begin to see her as a threat that needs to be taken care of.
Like many of Refn’s previous films, this is highly stylized and visually sumptuous. Combined with the score, which has moments where it dominates the film, it feels like a feature length commercial or music video. That is mostly meant to be a compliment, though there are some moments where it is lacking in substance that makes it feel about as deep as a commercial. Still, this film is a visual treat, which is at least part of what it set out to accomplish.
Another aim of the film is to provoke. Refn has proved to be what I would call an auteur provocateur. In his best moments (think the elevator scene in Drive), he blends exquisite visuals with the violent/dark/disturbing to create something that can be difficult to watch, but equally difficult to peel your eyes away from. In a lot of ways he is a cold, ruthless, and unrelenting director. He seems interested in pushing the limits of his audience and is unflinching with his camera. This film is pretty straightforward for the first half, and then the metaphorical “neon demon” arrives like the 2001: A Space Odyssey monolith and in the form of an inverted tri-force from The Legend of Zelda, and things take a surreal turn to crazy town, delving into necrophilia at one point, and culminating in an ending that is so truly audacious that it is borderline comedic.
It’s other task is dissecting the modeling world and the women who make their living in it. Here is where the film is at its most divisive. The women who populate this film are obsessed with their looks and maintaining their beauty. It is, after all, how they make their living. Jesse confesses to Dean early on that she doesn’t have any talent, but she knows she is pretty and she can make money with pretty. Beauty is a currency in this world, but so is youth. And Jesse’s beauty and youth catches the eye of many people, including Ruby, but it threatens others. Gigi and Sarah, both initially dismissive of her, each come to feel not just their jobs but their value and worth are threatened by her very existence. Jesse, who is revealed early on to really be only sixteen (and told to lie and say she is nineteen), is a reminder to Gigi and Sarah that their value has an expiration date.
The film ventures into well-trodden territory about how women really view other women as a threat to them. Its critique of high fashion essentially cannibalizing itself and chewing up and spitting out women at a high rate is also likely nothing new, but the overt way Refn actualizes this on the screen is uniquely his own. The film also shows the vapid, narcissistic nature of the people in this industry, with a casting director at one point actually saying, “Beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” All of this is coming from a male director, and given how the film looks and how it objectifies the female form and revels in the elevating its visuals to high art, it seems like the film wants to have its cake and eat it too. Whether the film is even critiquing these elements, if these critiques are even substantive, or if the film is merely itself vapid and narcissistic is open to debate. A week after seeing it, I frankly still have not come down completely on one side or the other on it. My feeling is that it is not as lacking in substance as its harshest critics would say, but also not as substantive as it thinks it is either. It exists in a murky, lurid middle ground.
Elle Fanning is a young actress who has been on my radar since Super 8. I thought she was mature beyond her years as an actress and would grow up to be a real star. She has done nothing since then to dissuade me from that notion. As Jesse, she plays at some things she hasn’t done to this point, in a way playing a dual role, as Jesse starts out as an innocent young girl. About halfway through the film, though, when Refn flips the script and Jesse encounters the neon demon, a visualization of a fame/beauty/narcissism disease, her character is completely transformed. It’s a dark, promising turn for a young actress who has not had the opportunity to explore that in many of her roles yet. Jena Malone is a bit unnerving in her portrayal of Ruby, someone who starts out as protective of Jesse but is also borderline obsessed with her and that obsession only grows until it reaches an uncomfortable climax. Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote feel spot on as the beauty/youth obsessed veterans of the modeling world that feel like they are backed into a corner and respond ruthlessly. Keanu Reeves also has a small role as the owner of the seedy motel that Jesse stays at.
The Neon Demon is heavy on style and almost has enough substance to balance the scales and make it a truly bold, visionary film. It falls a little short of that, though it is a marked improvement over Only God Forgives. Elle Fanning gives a mesmerizing performance to go along with a hypnotic score. It’s definitely a film of the art house variety, and it is most likely going to provoke negative responses as much as it engenders praise. It’s definitely polarizing, but it looks really great while it is dividing its audience.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars