Nicolas Winding Refn’s most recent directorial effort, The Neon Demon (2016) is a psychological horror tale of a murderous, bloody-minded fashion industry that attracts young Jesse (Elle Fanning) to Los Angeles. Jesse hopes to become a big time fashion model because being pretty is the only talent she knows. She makes fast friends with make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone), but it’s not long before Jessie finds herself targeted by fellow models, Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), given her irresistible beauty.
Nicolas Winding Refn’s films have been a bit of a gamble recently. It’s no secret that his previous film, Only God Forgives (2013), received a limp reception at best. How might The Neon Demon fare, in comparison with Winding Refn’s previous efforts? Might it remind you of the brutal excellence of Drive (2011) or Bronson (2008), or is it more akin to the beautiful emptiness of Only God Forgives?
One of Winding Refn’s great talents is sourcing talent itself, and his ongoing use of Ryan Gosling and Mads Mikkelsen in his films (although they’re not in this one) is evidence of that. The Neon Demon plays host to some good performances, and Elle Fanning in particular is the perfect embodiment of wide-eyed innocence and purity until she realises her power (a quick switch, but a confident and believable one). Abbey Lee’s and Jena Malone’s intense performances are also a highlight, particularly during the more gorey moments, and the little cameo by the beautiful Christina Hendricks as a casting agent for fashion models was a nice surprise. However, we also have Keanu Reeves whose cameo as a plank of wood in the form of a motel owner is kind of painful to watch.
Aesthetically, The Neon Demon is absolutely gorgeous. Cinematography by Natasha Braier communicates a sense of perfection, slickness, and danger, with scenes so shiny that the light literally bounces off everything, seemingly extending beyond their light sources and into space and time. The colours are bright and beautiful, with many scenes where a light source consists of one colour, conveying danger and tension (see: Argento’s Suspiria (1977)). Some of the sumptuous visuals won’t be new to you if you’ve seen much of Dario Argento (and other giallo films), David Lynch, or Frederico Fellini; there are numerous references to other visually iconic moments in film. But The Neon Demon is so beautiful that you just sink into the visuals as they are provided to you, regardless of their original sources. Austin Gorg must be commended for his work on the art direction. The pared-back electro-synth score by Cliff Martinez also gave me a bunch of 80s-era Stranger Things vibes, which isn’t a bad thing.
Now that I’ve established what I like about the film, it may be useful to discuss the minor moral outrage that I also experienced whilst watching it. The Neon Demon doesn’t so much as express the point that the fashion industry ingests and churns out young women at an alarming rate; it chooses to engage in this act itself. In some ways, the film is almost like a mirror image of what generally goes on for women today (active misogyny, body shaming, gender-based violence, et cetera) set within the frame of the fashion industry. But instead of putting forth any actual messages or making any meaning about this, it’s just out there for us, the voyeurs, to consume in the most beautiful and shallow manner possible. That’s the thing – the story is shallow, and obvious. It has a somewhat shocking ending that can be seen from a mile away. The film doesn’t say anything about anything. Although fortunately, the dialogue isn’t half bad.
I wonder if I wouldn’t mind this so much if the film took a stand on anything, or if we learned more about the psychology of our main characters. There are some really interesting parts of the film around female power and deadly choices that are so interesting, but unfortunately go completely unexplored. One key moment of the film at its bloody climax also occurs unseen, which is one of the film’s biggest downfalls. Ultimately, without further exploration, the characters in this film are just “nasty women” – jealous, ambitious, angry, beautiful models who aren’t perceived as much else. And between the film’s rapey comments about 13-year-olds (“real Lolita shit”), the gross-out moments with a female corpse, the poisonous messages about female appearance, the general creepy male gaze whenever there’s a naked female body… it just makes for a shallow and frustrating experience that is almost confusing in its lack of meaning.
The Neon Demon is nothing short of a visual and auditory delight, which unfortunately doesn’t amount to much story-wise. It’s a lot like Only God Forgives in that way; beautifully empty. The film has some great performances in Elle Fanning and Abbey Lee, but the story itself and its underlying messages leave something to be desired. It’s worth seeing in the cinema if you really want to be enveloped in the nightmare of its aesthetics, in the darkness, colours, and flashing lights of runway cameras. Otherwise, you can probably wait.
Is it worth paying for a ticket?: Eh. If you’re a cinematography connoisseur, then yes. If not, you can probably wait until it’s released for home viewing.
Watch the trailer here.