The Neon Demon (2016)
D: Nicolas Winding Refn. DP: Natasha Braier. W: Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws, and Polly Stenham. Starring: Elle Fanning/Jena Malone/Abbey Lee/Bella Heathcote/Keanu Reeves/Karl Glusman/Alessandro Nivola/Christina Hendricks/Desmond Harrington.
All aglow with glitter and gold arrives The Neon Demon. This is the newest feature from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn whose recent films include two Ryan Gosling vehicles, 2013’s Only God Forgives and 2011’s Drive. Only God Forgives, a film I have yet to see, was critically panned and its excessive violence heavily criticized. Whereas Drive was a piece of excellent work that when revisited still pulses with the same energy as a first viewing. Its violence was smartly contained within a few scenes.
The Neon Demon caused a divisive reaction at its Cannes Festival premiere earlier this year. Like Swiss Army Man at Sundance, the film was received with either boos or hoorays. The film is certainly not for everyone, but does it need to be? The Neon Demon centers on Jesse (Elle Fanning) in a simple girl moves to the big city narrative. Jesse, realizing at a freshly orphaned sixteen that what she has to offer to the world is beauty, signs with a Los Angeles modeling agency. Living out of a seedy motel in Pasadena she befriends make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone) and is quickly pitted against established models Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee). Her natural youthful freshness skyrockets her into a world she’s not equipped to fight.
Cliff Martinez’s original score is a scintillating mood creator. His synthesizers and electronic music elements enhance Refn and cinematographer Natasha Braier’s work. The film feels almost like a mood board. Visually driven Refn merely sets up his theme park and allows Jesse to wander through it. Flashing images and colors illustrate the dark glamor of LA nightlife. It is such a well known story there is not a need for complicated dramatic explorations, rather visually Refn gives us a fishbowl look into this youth obsessed industry of beauty. Costume designer Erin Benach, who also worked on Drive, gives each woman a distinct look. Jesse’s look evolves from soft to hard and the palette of the clothing becomes just as important in the production design as lights and dressing. Especially when those clothes are removed.
Elle Fanning at a then sixteen turning seventeen is a lithe golden haired vision. Her instincts were proven back in 2011’s Super 8 and her vulnerable depths in a film few saw, 2012’s Ginger & Rosa. She has held her own in bigger projects (like 2014’s Maleficent), but here she is a mix of all things. Fanning gives Jesse a blend of innocence and self-awareness that is the crux of this age. Physically she matches this world, the sequence of her first gold paint splashed photo shoot truly beautifully terrifying. Alongside her is a strong performance from Jena Malone who has the riskiest scene in the film. Desmond Harrington is excellent as a nearly mute fashion photographer and former Australian model Abbey Lee is great as desperate nearly has been Sarah. Newcomer Karl Glusman is decent as Jesse’s local boy, but is quickly overshadowed by a menacing Keanu Reeves who owns the motel Jesse lives in.
Overall, The Neon Demon is a creative visual creature that will affect audiences very differently. As a former Los Angeles dweller certain things did not shock me. Like the appearance of a mountain lion in a motel room, which got a laugh from the woman next to me. Lady, that stuff actually happens in California. For me the lack of story works and takes a literal visual approach to an underbelly of a youth obsessed industry that is familiar, thus set-ups are not needed. The shocking elements of it might go a bit too far. Merely as the first, Malone’s risky scene, diminishes the punch of the next sequence, which is more significant. Yet the weirder or potentially science fiction elements of the story are deftly woven into a mood that feels, with Martinez’s score, like a The Twilight Zone episode. Even with these few flaws, The Neon Demon is a memorable piece of work worthy a watch on the big screen.