Even when I don’t like his films (which is rare), I’m always glad writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn is out there in the world making movies. He’s something of a button pusher, sometimes a little too obviously so, but going back to his PUSHER trilogy, BRONSON, VALHALLA RISING, and his breakthrough work DRIVE, Refn remains as solid a visual artist as anyone working today. I consider him a modern day Stanley Kubrick, even if his themes of violence amid a certain amount of serenity don’t always hold together. Again, the fact that a filmmaker is even thinking in these terms and challenging the norm (of both big-budget and indie films) is just a sight to behold.
This brings us to Refn’s latest work, THE NEON DEMON, which tackles a few of the familiar elements of his movies through the eyes of a largely female cast, including Elle Fanning as a 16-year-old model named Jesse, who is barely off the bus from Georgia (it should come as no surprise that Fanning herself is from Georgia and was 16 when she started shooting this film). As Jesse begins her journey through the fashion world, she catches the eye of a few key players who have the ability to send her career skyrocketing. She possesses the qualities of an “It Girl,” and it excites “The Powers That Be” to no end.
The first person to spot Jesse’s potential is makeup artist Ruby (a magnetic Jena Malone), whom she meets after a shoot. Before long, Jesse signs with a modeling agency (run by Mad Men alumni Christina Hendricks), has her portfolio shot by a star-maker photographer (Desmond Harrington) and is picked to be the final runway model in a show by a famous designer (Alessandro Nivola). While Jesse seems like one of the few good people in her small universe, her fortune and presence makes her a target of severe jealousy by some of Ruby’s model friends. In one particularly unnerving scene, Jesse cuts her hand on a piece of glass and model Gigi (Bella Heathcote, from MAD MAX: FURY ROAD) attempts to drink the blood oozing out of her palm, in a desperate attempt to ingest a tiny piece of whatever special quality Jesse possesses. If that there unnerved you then trust me this film is not for you.
With a shared screenwriting credit from Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, Refn’s THE NEON DEMON is an overly exaggerated and accelerated version of the Hollywood modeling experience, complete with unhealthy doses of sex, violence, the shallowest of people and predatory power brokers. But there’s also something other-worldly about Jesse’s journey, as if something (not human) has crept into her soul and is in the process of corrupting her, making her a poison to everyone else who enters her circle of influence. Complete with the amazing Cliff Martinez (DRIVE, SPRING BREAKERS and several Steven Soderbergh projects) providing yet another amazing 80’s synth-heavy score that adds another layer of sleaze to the proceedings, and Natasha Braier (THE ROVER) as cinematographer delivering on the colorful, lighting-heavy world of fashion, while stripping away the gloss and glam for Jesse’s outside life
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the couple of scenes in THE NEON DEMON that feature Keanu Reeves as the manager of the motel in which Jesse is staying. He’s about as fully formed a bastard as Reeves has ever played, and I love this side of him, snapping at his tenants the minute they require assistance from him. He’s wonderful here.
If you haven’t figured out if THE NEON DEMON is your cup of tea or not, don’t you worry. I fully expect at least 50 percent or more of the people who see it are going to loathe it. It’s a pretty film about very pretty people; it’s a film about vapid people that is in no way vapid itself. I consider Fanning’s performance to be subtle and precise. Her character Jesse lives between fear and anxiety, but as things start going her way, those qualities turn into tentative excitement. Her eyes begin to empty out when she’s working, but they fill to the brim with life and humanity when she’s off the clock. The true villain of the piece is difficult to find, but once you figure out who it is, I feel it becomes an even more disturbing work.
THE NEON DEMON finds a way to feel chaotic and messy while still appearing polished. Refn’s observations about Los Angeles in general and modeling specifically alternate between the astute and obvious. But it’s with his themes of this world consuming this young woman that have impressed me the most. He has captured this world centered on beauty and promptly turns it into a pure horror show, complete with all the bloody trimmings. This film like most of his work will likely leave you conflicted and that’s good! Because it means you’re actually feeling something, which in my opinion doesn’t happen nearly enough in a darkened theater these days. I highly recommend this to any cinema buff. For the casual movie goer, approach with an open mind