Nicolas Winding Refn is back with another lush entry, set in the LA model scene, that keeps the tension running high while being unpredictable as to what will happen next.
Following a newcomer in town, Jesse, she is wide-eyed and just 16, but instantly puts every casting agent under her spell with her divine beauty. We follow Jesse as she navigates being the hot new thing in town and the results that come with it. How does she treat the young guy who helped her out, can she trust her apartment manager’s leering gaze, will her new-found friends keep her safe and will the aging models tear Jesse down out of fear? These are the trials Jesse must navigate as Refn constantly pushes back against our expectations.
Storywise, The Neon Demon is on the lighter side of Refn’s filmography and is much more interested in watching a young girl navigate entering the real world on her own. Setting it in the realm of LA high fashion heightens a lot of the drama and ramps up the tension with the perceived predatory eye Refn shoots the film through. Everything is dangerous in The Neon Demon, much like most of Refn’s work, and he is able to keep that mood alive throughout the film’s runtime. Refn’s beautiful imagery is propelled along by another amazing score from Cliff Martinez, whose work is telling us exactly how we should feel through the electronic synths he doles out so well.
The story often feels like a fairytale, filled with danger on the outskirts, and the way Refn plays with those tropes should be a clue as to how the film is never taking itself too seriously. I think Refn does fear for the young and beautiful, the seduction of the pedestal that they can be placed on and the dangers of what others will do to tear you down, but he also knows he is making a glitzy thriller set in a superficial world as well. It is sort of perfect fit for Refn, who can layer in some thematic ideas that haunt him while playing in the superficial, self-serious aesthetic the high fashion industry can be known for. The heightened nature of everything also allows Refn to slowly ratchet up the insanity as well and you should be warned that he isn’t afraid to touch on some taboos that many in society are not interested and dealing with. You were warned!
Elle Fanning stars as Jesse at the center of The Neon Demon and is really quite spectacular. She has the blank affect needed for a designer to make you a hanger for their work, but also shows flashes of small town joy while her innocence is still about her. When Jesse makes that turn toward the pedestal, Fanning is able to sell that sense of entitlement as well, turning on a dime in an eerie dream sequence on a runway. This is certainly the most adult work I’ve seen from Fanning and I hope she continues the transition out of child star status as well as she does here.
Keanu Reeves pops up in a couple of scenes as Jesse’s hotel manager and is having a lot of fun playing the predatory creep Refn needs him to be. Reeves finds a lot of humor in a despicable part as well. Jena Malone is kind of incredible as a makeup artist who befriends Jesse, as Malone sells us on the slow turn that character makes across the film. Few actors would do some of the things she does in this movie, though the last scene with her is the film’s most confounding. It is also interesting how Refn uses Malone’s Ruby to finally let the “male gaze” into the film, an interesting inversion for a film that never really sexualizes its women until she does.
Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee are both statuesque terrors in this film, eyeing Jesse down as she swoops in on their corner. Lee in particular gets the most to work with and has a couple of shocking moments she really nails. Heathcote is no slouch either, but she is in a more traditional “bitch” mode, excelling at trying to verbally take down Jesse at every turn. These two sneak up on you at how much they matter to the end game, don’t underestimate them, be sure to keep an eye on them; not that it’s hard to do in the first place. Also, Karl Glusman is solid here, which is a huge step up from how miscast he was in Gaspar Noé’s Love. I mean, Glusman was open to performing real sex acts on film, that is why he was a good fit for Love, but his acting chops have solidified since that film.
The Neon Demon isn’t for everyone. Refn can be a polarizing filmmaker and this film isn’t going to change that. The third act extremes he goes to will send some folks out of the theater, but if you are someone who gets on his wavelength, especially his last couple films, I think you will take away a lot from The Neon Demon. Refn knows what he is doing and is having a lot of fun making this fashion horror film. With a game cast, another great score and more beautiful imagery, Refn fans will have a blast; even if he’ll make your skin crawl by the end.