There’s something peculiar about responding to a film that foundationally revels in moral repugnance. There has always been a place in cinema for the depraved, a haven for exploitation and the darkest recesses of taboo wish fulfillment, experiences without the consequences of the real world. Maverick Danish film director Nicolas Winding Refn knows his way around these seedy corners of the cinema, reveling in ultraviolence as art with projects like Drive and Only God Forgives, drowning them in visual mastery and deliberate pacing, art films for the art crowd with the violence of Tarantino. His newest, The Neon Demon, seems set to continue the trend, but with a female at its center for the first time in his career. Refn’s films have always been fascinated with masculinity, so the sea change could be an opportunity to see a different side of his twisted little mind.
A singular take on the age old story of the ingenue who moves to LA to make something in the big city, The Neon Demon follows Jesse (Elle Fanning), a sixteen year old girl lured to the City of Angels by a potential career in modelling. Possessed with preternatural beauty and the skill of not knowing any better, she rises like a phoenix through the ranks of the LA fashion scene, engendering lustful, hungry stares from the men in power and withering jealousy from the peers she’s forcing into an early retirement. She finds a confidant in makeup artist for both the living and the deceased Ruby (Jena Malone) and her somewhat friends Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote). The industry is designed to chew up the likes of Jesse and discard her dessicated husk when she has outlived her usefulness. It is up to her to forge her own path and make the most of it.
As the story plays out, The Neon Demon sets itself up as a pretty standard example of the trope, a sort of A Star is Born by way of Mulholland Drive with a heavy helping of Dario Argento on the side, but revelling in Refn’s particularly operatic aesthetic. Like his other recent films, The Neon Demon is spare on character development, providing little more than archetypes (the virginal protagonist, her world-weary street smart mentor, Mean Girl rivals, lecherous motel manager, etc) and generally keeping the story itself to a surface level. Refn’s films have always been best described as style over substance affairs, and this one certainly falls nicely into that continuum. From its title sequence, emblazoned with his NWR monogram, all the way through the Anton Corbijn-esque end credits, The Neon Demon is the product of a director entirely convinced of his own mastery of the form.
An artist this confident and self-satisfied can be a dangerous proposition, as Refn himself proved with the turgid, self-serious Only God Forgives. The Neon Demon can be equally drawn out at times, but in practice it feels so much more sprightly than its predecessor, perhaps thanks to the female protagonists dialing down his films’ overwhelming masculinity, or the critically welcome sense of humor. Not since Bronson, his whacked out energetic take on the infamous British prisoner, has Refn felt so alive and in on the joke. That outlook is vital for a film with the content of The Neon Demon; without it the film could (and, it seems, is) be decried as almost ceaselessly misogynistic. Refn without doubt sees the fashion industry as a nest of vipers, pushing that sentiment far beyond its logical end into a violent, garish funhouse mirror nightmare. Black Swan meets Giorgio Armani. Jesse is beset by predators from all sides, personally and professionally, the world beating her down until the hard edge of the industry begins to infect her. But Refn is not interested in a pure morality tale. He plays the role of provocateur, the prankster showing the world what image-obsessed objectifying consumerist culture can really lead to unchecked by the petty laws of polite society. The society of The Neon Demon is belligerently not polite.
There are times Refn does go a little overboard, dropping in disconnected pure art sequences (usually taking place at fashion shows) that add little to nothing to the narrative. It is moments like these that get him labeled as pretentious, but the pure art of it all, the staging of the camera, the cinematography by Natasha Braier, the dread drenched synthesizer score from longtime collaborator Cliff Martinez makes these moments persevere even as they seem divorced from the rest of the proceedings at times. Refn is also buoyed by a trio of excellent performances; Elle Fanning grows up in a big way, striking that delicate balance between her innate vulnerability and the corruption of this poisonous industry beginning to take hold, while Jena Malone continues to be among Hollywood’s best kept secrets with a fearless (in more ways than one) turn. Perhaps most gratifying is Abbey Lee (likely most recognizable as one of Immortan Joe’s fugitive wives from Mad Max: Fury Road), the statuesque beauty painted by the industry as obsolete because she had the temerity to turn 22. Her vampiric, at times Norma Desmond-like performance just might be the film’s highlight.
The Neon Demon is the sort of film Hollywood created the Hays Code to stop. It depicts a world of lives nasty, brutish and short, and pulls no punches in making that case. It periodically dips into Refn’s seemingly endless propensity for depravity and violence, providing images that will be difficult to shake for both all the right and all the wrong reasons. This is a profoundly divisive film, destined to be lauded just as often as it is decried. But for those with the right temperament, those who can see the impish mischief bubbling beneath the surface and can look past the more reprehensible actions shown on screen, they will find an almost immeasurably beautiful and engaging experience.