The Neon Demon

Film Review by Jamie Dunn | 08 Jul 2016
  • The Neon Demon
Film title: The Neon Demon
Director: Nicholas Winding Refn
Starring: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves
Release date: 8 Jun
Certificate: 18

With The Neon Demon, Nicolas Winding Refn delves into the depraved world of the LA fashion industry, creating a film with a beautiful sheen and dark core

"Beauty isn't everything,” says a character in Nicolas Winding Refn’s delirious horror film The Neon Demon. “It's the only thing." The Danish enfant terrible clearly agrees. Since his bezerk biopic of notorious British jailbird Charles Bronson, through to his perverse Bangkok-set revenge thriller Only God Forgives, Refn has happily forgone story in place of style. Who needs good dialogue or a coherent structure when you have beautifully lit actors (Ryan Gosling, Tom Hardy and Mads Mikkelsen are previous muses) looking cool within a fastidiously composed frame? Colour, texture and mood are his strong suit, and the latter is almost always menacing.

Refn finds the perfect canvas for his all-surface sensibility in the Los Angeles fashion world. As with many of the great tales of Tinseltown depravity, The Neon Demon begins with an ingenue entering the belly of the beast. Bambi-eyed 16-year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning) wants to be a model, while everyone she meets in the business (talent agents, photographers, designers, make-up artists, other models) wants a piece of her – some of them literally.

Like Refn’s previous LA-set movie, Drive, The Neon Demon is a gorgeous fairy tale; in this case, Snow White by way of Jacqueline Susann. Jesse’s fellow models, taut, plastic and soulless, are the evil queens who admire themselves in lightbulb framed mirrors and recognise that, with fresh-faced Jesse on the scene, they’re no longer the fairest of them all. There’s even a big bad wolf in the form of a lupine Keanu Reeves as a sleazy motel owner from the Norman Bates school of hoteliering.

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Refn’s sharpest move is that Jesse is no babe in the woods. That’s clear from an early scene where she attends some sort of S&M art party: a naked body bound in leather straps spins in mid-air, illuminated by punishing strobe lighting. The strobe effect makes this the toughest thing to sit through in the whole film, which is saying something for a movie with scenes of cannibalism, sadism and necrophilia. Jesse, however, looks on in awe. For her, beauty seems to be mixed up with pleasure and pain, and she clearly takes delight in the lust and jealousy her looks engender in others. When Jesse's drippy photographer boyfriend (Karl Glusman) tells her she’s becoming just like the other icy models in her new clique she proudly corrects his misconception: “I don't want to be like them. They want to be like me.”

As in his last two features (Drive and Only God Forgives), Refn drenches the film in the electro synth of Cliff Martinez. Pulsating, dark and seductive, it drives Refn’s scenes, even the most ponderous and self-indulgent ones. As in those earlier films, the score is the best thing about the movie. Natasha Braier’s ravishing photography, which sets the macabre mood from the opening image of Jesse drenched in blood and playing dead for a fashion shoot, comes a close second. At The Neon Demon’s best, sound and image combine to create sequences of surreal beauty and sinister menace, as dizzying as those of Dario Argento and as hallucinatory as Alejandro Jodorowsky.

Fanning also impresses. “Are you food or are you sex?” says one of the catty models to Jesse, referring to her brand of lipstick (“cherry red” or “blowjob pink”, for example) but really foreshadowing the young model’s Hollywood experience. Through sheer charisma, Fanning makes her character's journey much more compelling than this binary. Jesse is not as innocent as she looks, and in close-up Fanning fills in all the gaping holes in Refn’s supermodel-thin screenplay. Like her character, Fanning’s destined to be a massive star – as long as Hollywood doesn’t swallow her up.

Released by Icon