I recall fondly the decrying of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive when it released in 2011. My college buddies were disappointed that it wasn’t something more in line with the Fast and Furious franchise and my sisters were a bit angry that the charisma of Ryan Gosling hadn’t rubbed off on the film. Me though, I sat gobsmacked. Gobsmacked at Cliff Martinez’s score, the lush visuals and Refn’s insistence that these boilerplate action movies can be livened up a bit if treated like fairy tales. Now, again, I sit gobsmacked at the feet of The Neon Demon, a fashion-world satire mixed up with so many influences that you can’t fit them all in one graf. Above all, it’s Refn at his most unwieldy and funny; like if Dario Argento decided to remake Showgirls and did so with the questionable moral ethics of Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita.
Jesse (Elle Fanning) moves to some dump motel in Los Angeles to go after what so many other young women are trying to achieve: fame and accomplishment as a fashion model. After successfully scoring a gig with an agency led by Jan (Christina Hendricks), Jesse is thrust into a world filled with jealous competitors who will go to extreme lengths to make sure they’ll get ahead.
Nicolas Winding Refn makes it clear from the beginning that he’s made something much more experiential than his other fare. If compared to Only God Forgives, an unforgivably meandering and indulgent mess, then I’d say The Neon Demon is what happens when Refn reins things in a bit for something much sillier and less serious. Jesse, an object of immense adolescent beauty, puts up a blissfully ignorant front at first with everyone she meets. Whether that’s the guy who took her first photos or the creepy landlord (Keanu Reeves), there’s a seductive facet to her that she thinks will work out in her favor. Unfortunately, she gets in a little too deep, and is Refn’s wont, the happenings get violent.
Luckily, those happenings are shamelessly trashy and meant to provoke the most primal of reaction. Yes, I mean the one where stuff comes out of your mouth when you don’t want it to. The Neon Demon is set in its ways, master of the slow-build and payoff. It even goes out of its way to deter viewers from guessing where everything is leading, twisting the story beats almost as much as the models stare in disdain at each other’s bodies.
Above all, though, Refn may be king of putting the viewer in his modern fairy tales. This one being bright purple, neon pink and whatever other fluorescent hue the director feels like slathering over a frame. “Beauty kills” being the key phrase here; The Neon Demon may be critiquing so much of the vapid fashion industry, but it also plays into all of those things it’s critiquing. The stone faces of models, the gaunt and seemingly battle-worn bodies of those same models, the auteur photographers, and the seedy onlookers are all put onto the chopping block here.
Cliff Martinez’s score, once again, only aids to the viewer slipping into whatever realm Refn is working in. The synth-driven score booms and whizzes throughout even the dull moments, making them stark and beautiful. And when things start heading south (oh boy, do they), it assaults the viewer as much as the images do.
The Neon Demon may not toe the same line that Drive did but it’s proof that when Refn gets away from himself, sometimes it creates unmistakable cinematic greatness. Pardon the brevity; I’m about two days separated from the film and I’m still unpacking the damn thing.