The Neon Demon

In Films by Alex Moss Editor

The Neon Demon director Nicolas Winding Refn doesn’t want you to like The Neon Demon. To simply like something he created would be an assault on his senses, and if anyone is going to be assaulting anyone’s senses it’s going to be Refn assaulting his audience’s. No, Nicolas Winding Refn wants you to either love The Neon Demon or despise it with such contempt as to have you dry retching come the climax.

Set in the LA modeling world Jesse, an angelic and transfixing Elle Fanning, encounters a menagerie of women. First up is make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone) who wants to take Jesse under her wing and show her the ropes. Then there are modelling rivals Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abby Lee) both of whom are desperate to remain in the modelling limelight. Add to the mix Jesse’s only true friend Dean (Karl Glusman), her sneering, pimping landlord Hank (Keanu Reeves) and for Jesse to survive this dog eat dog world she’s going to have to grow some fangs.

From its opening shots right through to its closing credit sequence The Neon Demon is easily one of this year’s most stunningly beautiful films. At times it looks like it has been lifted straight from the covers of Vogue or Vanity Fair, the LA sun dripping through every pore of celluloid. But Refn uses this to heighten his darkest fantasies, as is his want, the film readily and frequently descending into his now trademark neo-noir stylings. All underlit, brooding sets rife with seduction and danger.

Those going in expecting a traditional story will be disappointed. Refn is not interested in narrative storytelling but sensory art. This is not a film to followed so much as immersed in and experienced. Imagine if David Lynch deciding to make Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls meets Dario Argento’s Suspiria and you are close to comprehending what Refn has conjured. Indeed Refn does for modelling what Lynch so perfectly did for the acting world of LA in his masterpiece Mulholland Drive.

Throughout the film it is made clear that the only true currency in this world is beauty. We all strive for it, we all crave it, we all want it more than anything else. Because as Jesse points out it doesn’t matter if you’re not talented at anything if you are beautiful you can make money out of that. Given we live in a world of heightened narcissism and selfies it is hard to argue with what Refn is not so delicately stabbing you through the face with. That he chooses to dedicate the film to his wife is another matter altogether.  

But, as Refn is so want to do, making a simple point is never quite enough. Like when Ryan Gosling wanted to kill the man in the elevator in Drive so Refn wants to stamp the point repeatedly until you are crushed under the brutality of it. And so the film builds, gradually and slowly at first before descending into a waking version of hell, complete with cougars, cannibalism, necrophilia and attempted rape. And then the film seems to end, the world goes back to a sense of order, but Refn hasn’t finished with you. The final scene is what Refn does so wonderfully, a stunning, visual, near vomit inducing moment that will either floor you or have you rolling your eyes in annoyance at Refn’s idea of horror. But either way, you’re going to be horrified.

The Neon Demon is the very definition of a Nicolas Winding Refn picture. His presence, his style, his ideas of sex and violence being one and the same thing are writ large. It is divisive, chilling, hypnotic, harrowing and it is majestic in its own beautifully twisted way.