What a spellbinding director Nicholas Winding Refn is. From his early work through to his biggest hit, Drive, viewers have tended to appreciate his artistry on a visual level, even if the films themselves tend to be divisive. His films, even when they don’t work, tend to at least look gorgeous. Refn’s latest, The Neon Demon, takes his languid, super-stylised approach – which reached ennui-inducing levels in Only God Forgives – and distills it into a more focused, taut narrative, and is ultimately a much more successful film as a result.
The story follows an aspiring model, Jesse (Elle Fanning), who moves to the city to kick-start her career, and swiftly turns heads in the fashion industry with her youth and natural good looks. She very quickly falls in with makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone) and her friends Gigi and Sarah (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee), the latter of whom are immediately jealous of Jesse’s quick success. Jesse is innocent (and told to lie about her age) and overwhelmed, but her attitude becomes twisted by success and a conviction that she has no real talent beyond her looks.
In Only God Forgives, I felt Refn’s style overpowered what little narrative and character there was, leaving us with a film that, despite its surface beauty, was hollow and, frankly, boring. I was pleased, therefore, to find myself thoroughly enjoying The Neon Demon. Refn’s languorous style is perfectly suited to the poised, precise world of fashion, to the point that the themes of vanity and the monetisation of beauty crystallise into the very fabric of the film. Like Drive, this is a film whose powerful visual style and hypnotic soundtrack help build the narrative up to a point which it might not otherwise have reached. Refn and his collaborators give the film a very poised sense of tone and mood, which elevate and enhance the thin, genre movie plot. The whole thing is drenched in Cliff Martinez’s throbbing, undulating score – a fusion of electronica and pulsating noir tones. In places, the sound is as important as the visuals – Refn and Martinez clearly work as a cinematic pairing.
The film’s primarily female cast are all on deceptively good form, and while the script (by Refn, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham) doesn’t require huge range from all of its performers, the mannered style and delivery all work towards the film’s overarching sense of tone. The supporting cast are also on great form, from Karl Glusman as Jesse’s friend to Keanu Reeves’ sinister turn as the owner of the motel Jesse moves into. A word, too, for Alessandro Nivola as an unnamed fashion designer, who is just terrific, stealing every scene he’s in and providing one of the best outlets for the film’s sense of jet-black humour.
It’s important to note the prevalence of women who worked on this film, from producers to writers to Natasha Braier’s terrific cinematography, because although for the majority of The Neon Demon, Refn shoots his cast with delicacy, there are one or two scenes towards the end which verge on the problematic, in particular a brief dream sequence which feels unnecessarily exploitative, and a crass nude shower scene which feels leery and out of place.
Some of the riffs Refn draws on with the visuals and violence hark back to the work of other directors, but only in a loving way; I felt the film had a mood and style all of its own, and that it subsumed its world so fully that it even came to resemble it, in a sort of formalised satire. Yes, Refn is certainly not the first filmmaker to comment on the beauty industry, but he’s the first to do it quite like this. The Neon Demon is positive step in Refn’s career after the dis appointment of Only God Forgives, which promised so much but delivered so little. I found much to enjoy in its stylised world of bitchy models and disturbing, noirish imagery.