Being a fan of filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch throughout my cinephile life, it was easy for a director like Nicolas Winding Refn to become my favorite storyteller currently making films. Every film of his is, to me, an absolute masterpiece that has many deep and meaningful layers to it. Almost every frame of his work is a gorgeous and rich piece of art that could be plucked from the screen and placed into a picture frame on a wall. He is a mysteriously brilliant mind that moves to the beat of his own soundtrack, does what he does without kowtowing to anyone’s expectations and striving to explore constantly with his own wild experimentations. He should truly be inspirational to any budding filmmaker who is afraid to do something strange and different.
My first exposure to Refn came in the form of Bronson, a film about Britain’s most notorious inmate, Michael “Bronson” Peterson. Funny enough, Refn says this film is more an experimental film about himself, rather than a biopic. He then made his own sort of science fiction with Valhalla Rising, a viking epic with his original muse, Mads Mikkelsen, in a non speaking main role. After that was his absolute masterpiece, Drive, a pulsing and kinetic journey through the ugliness of the Los Angeles underground and by far the Denmark director’s most well received movie. His last film, Only God Forgives, would be critically slammed from everywhere, stating that he had fallen from grace. Those critic’s opinions will not be changed by his new work, The Neon Demon.
The film centers around Jesse (Elle Fanning), an under age and parentless girl from Georgia who has newly arrived in Los Angeles and is looking to become a star. She stays in a sleazy and ominously shady motel in Pasadena, always close to the mouth of danger without knowing it. Naive and doe eyed, the film starts with Jesse in the middle of her first photo shoot with Dean (Karl Glusman), a young photographer she met off the internet. After the shoot she makes small talk with the make up artist, Ruby (Jena Malone), who invites her to a popular and seemingly fetish filled nightclub with her friends, fellow models Gigi and Sarah, played by Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee.
Immediately, the two more experienced models start in on Jesse, questioning her on sexual conquests and plastic surgery, obviously jealous of her stunning natural beauty. Soon after, Jesse lands an interview with the biggest modeling agency in the city but is told to tell people she is nineteen, rather than her real age of sixteen. Jesse becomes the object of everyone’s jealousy and envy when she is booked to be the major piece in the fashion show of a very prominent designer (Alessandro Nivola), something that proves to put Jesse in the crosshairs of women that would do anything for the spotlight. Even worse, this newly rewarded focus may be changing this young woman into just another cog in the ugly system of beauty.
The Neon Demon is provocative, completely disturbing and a fiercely biting commentary of the business of fashion. Refn makes constant reference and spectacle of the ugliness that makes up the body under the thin skin of beauty and the moral of “beauty is currency and everything else is worthless” is both said and always present throughout the film. Through his vision, The Rover cinematographer Natasha Braier and the pulsing and infectious score of Cliff Martinez, we slowly watch as we see an innocent little angel get picked apart and reformed into the Los Angeles way, stripping her soul away as she corrodes into what she needs to be to survive in the industry.
I felt that this film was almost Refn’s own Mulholland Dr., a film David Lynch made in 2001 about an actress arriving in the City of Angels to hopefully begin a successful acting career. Like Jesse, the main in that film has an almost precocious trust in those she meets but it becomes apparent that no one’s intentions are in her best interest. In The Neon Demon, it is lust that drives every character that Jesse gravitates towards, even the one character that has good intentions of protecting her. Everyone wants to possess her and make her theirs which in turn feeds the ugly beast of ego, fueling Jesse’s trip into the third act of this film.
The Neon Demon is very much an artful horror film that acts with no restraint. There is a dirtiness under the surface that only the viewers minds can see as everything you’re looking at has an arresting beauty to it that you can’t look away from. The best thing is that as Jesse is slowly being corrupted by those in her life and that which surrounds her, we the audience are that static piece that sees the horror slowly unfold as she puts herself in increasing danger just simply through how she looks. Her gorgeous looks suddenly change from an asset to achieving her dreams to a superiority complex she can hold over anyone’s head.
Nicolas Winding Refn has an ability to make films that I can not shake from my head. Every story he crafts leads me to decompress afterwards and to try and excise every subtle nuance from, causing constant rewatches for things I may have missed. He is an enigma that you just want to hang on his every word and see the world through his eyes. There may actually be a self loathing in The Neon Demon which he may not have ever explored on film before and it’s an aspect that really seems to hold the film together in my opinion. From the city line sprawling behind Jesse in her modeling interview scene to the assembly line look of the fashion show auditions, Refn is constantly giving us metaphors of how diseased our picture of what true beauty is. I love this film and I give it a five out of five.