The ‘Drive’ director’s latest is a gorgeous exploration of the exploitative and terrifying nature of the Hollywood fashion industry.
Nicolas Winding Refn can’t catch a break. And for good reason. The self indulgent genius of 2011’s Drive (and the underrated Bronson) produced a disastrous and gross result in Only God Forgives. It has its attackers and defenders, certainly, but it was sloppy at very best. Refn’s latest The Neon Demon is undoubtably a better film than Only God Forgives, but will not convert his critics.
The Neon Demon is the sort of hellacious spectacle of lights and sounds we’ve come to expect from Refn. This time, however, the message is blunt and the gore exists on the periphery of the film’s menacing version of Hollywood. The Neon Demon is shockingly straightforward for the majority of its two hour run time. Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a small town midwesterner who moves to Hollywood in order to fulfill her dreams of becoming a model. Her rise to success is swift as she falls in with a group of models led by Ruby (Jena Malone) who is consequently quite obsessed with Jesse. Her housing situation is rough, living in a motel under the management of the misogynistic and violent Hank (Keanu Reeves). She soon finds herself in the extremely (un)lucky position of being both too young and too beautiful.
The film often equates beauty with youth and youth with innocence. It’s a ruthless satire. The women of The Neon Demon are gorgeous and scheming. The men are sleazy. Even Dean (Karl Glusman) who, try as he must to have real feelings for Jesse, is ultimately not a sympathetic shoulder. The dialogue has a style — written by Refn alongside Mary Laws and Polly Stenham — and that style often evokes a dry chuckle. There’s the occasional clunker that comes with the level of seriousness Refn’s films take themselves. The film tends to be better when what you’re hearing is Cliff Martinez’s ripping soundtrack. There’s more dialogue than Drive, but ultimately The Neon Demon is an audio/visual experience.
The world exists in shades of neon blue, red, and gold. Refn’s Hollywood is oppressive and unfeeling. Jesse is alone, despite how much Ruby and everyone else in the industry values her body. There exists a dichotomy between materialism and surrealism. Refn leans on the latter to provide excitement and they often do. Each shot is meticulously composed. His filmmaking is best on display during the sequences that allow reality to melt away and the film becomes a glorified music video. It’s a gorgeous film, but anyone outside of the most devout cinephiles will get bored. Nothing happens quickly in The Neon Demon. The pace never picks up. Which is not to say there is no payoff to the build up. There is a bloody climax as expected, and what will prove to a divisive final 15 minutes, but the ending makes me wonder if a second viewing would be quite as enthralling.
The sexual politics of the film are muddied. Jesse’s coming of age is the through-line, but she is never a sexual being, sexuality is forced upon her. There are atrocious acts performed by women to women (one in particular that takes the cake in terms of most F’d up Refn moment). The models that populate the fashion industry want to be Jesse, the moguls who run it want her. Refn doesn’t shy away from showing the horrific side of this relationship, but next to nothing is being said about it. Remove yourself from the world of The Neon Demon and it becomes tough to decipher whether or not the satire comes from genuine experience or a twisted take on gender and sexuality that permeates Refn’s filmography.
Moments and segments of The Neon Demon will make you sick to your stomach. Unlike Only God Forgives, these feel consequential. The final revelation and accompanying image is unforgettable. These are interspersed within a film that is tense and menacing because you long for the release. Beauty has the power to entrance an audience. Nicolas Winding Refn knows this and uses it to get a reaction. What that reaction will be completely depends on who you are. Me? I don’t think this is a film I will be forgetting anytime soon.
The Neon Demon comes to theaters on June 24.