Nicolas Winding-Refn returns with another exercise in style over substance – and I kinda loved it.
Drenched in glitter, gold body paint and big cat fetishism, Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon is destined to divide audiences directly down the middle. You’ll either love it or you’ll hate it for exactly the same collection of reasons, with which side you fall on depending on your tolerance for abstract plotting, garish cinematography and unsubtle messaging that screams, “this is symbolism!”
Elle Fanning plays Jesse, a 16-year-old small town girl with dreams of being a model, who moves to LA and finds herself swamped by an industry instantly captivated by her sharp doll-like visage and flawless porcelain skin. Living out of a seedy motel run by Hank (Keanu Reeves) and with the help of friendly make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone), Jesse’s arrival doesn’t go unnoticed by her peers; envious glances from Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Australia’s Abbey Lee) signal their fears that their expiration date has already been and gone.
About halfway into the film, Alessandro Nivola’s fashion designer comments that “beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” If that doesn’t spell out Refn’s intentions then and there, get out while you still can because this film isn’t for you. Like Refn’s 2013 effort Only God Forgives, The Neon Demon is all about style over substance.
It’s unashamedly artsy as fuck and doesn’t even attempt to disguise it. You’ll be entranced, repulsed and slightly aroused, sometimes all at the same time – an odd sensation that Refn would no doubt be delighted to discover his film was eliciting.
The pace is achingly slow but the film itself is never boring. Every frame is lit, staged and composed with such meticulous purpose and lavish detail that the final product resembles a glossy fashion magazine sprung to life. Even when there isn’t much happening in terms of plot, Refn holds you in a hypnotic trance of colour and noise.
If nothing else, you can always marvel at Natasha Braier’s arresting cinematography or let Cliff Martinez’s pulsating cocktail of dark disco and honeyed synth invade your ears. Every ounce of creative thought has been poured into crafting an ethereal experience designed to overwhelm the senses. Psychedelic kaleidoscopes and shimmering, dreamlike vistas compliment a plot that is purposely ambiguous and slight at first; Refn holds a lot in reserve before unleashing a batshit insane third act that strikes like a coiled snake waiting to lash out and sink its teeth.
Truth is, I could sit here all day and wax lyrical about this film until I’m blue in the face (or fingers?) – but it wouldn’t make a lick of difference to roughly half of everyone who sees it. The simple fact is that a lot of people will be turned off The Neon Demon just as they have been in the past with Refn’s prior work.
The Verdict: 8.5/10
Whilst it isn’t quite an all-timer like Drive, it certainly outstrips whatever the hell was going on in Only God Forgives. Fanning, Malone and Reeves all give great performances, but the real delight comes from Refn’s delicious smorgasbord of striking cinematography and sound. Just sit back and soak it in.