Nicolas Winding Refn is a director truly unlike any other in modern cinema. What he brings to the table is so daringly unique and shockingly bold that sometimes it lands in the realm of genius (Bronson, Drive) and sometimes it lands in the realm of being rather unbearable to watch (Valhalla Rising, Only God Forgives).
In this respect, you never know quite which way Refn’s new releases are going to fall. Luckily, The Neon Demon not only lands very firmly on the genius side of Refn, but it is also his very best film to date. Below, we outline precisely why, in our spoiler-heavy review of The Neon Demon.
Before we delve into narrative specifics, it should first be pointed out just how much we love Elle Fanning and how excited we were at the prospect of her and Refn collaborating. From Super 8 to Somewhere, Fanning has proven her worth as a highly talented up and coming actress. The Neon Demon takes Fanning’s star quality one step farther. Refn (who also wrote the script, along with Mary Laws and Polly Stenham) provides Fanning with a very dense and diverse performance opportunity and she proves her worth in spades, surely raising her career profile in the process and cementing her even more firmly as the young actress to beat in Hollywood.
It sounds wicked to say it, but once Elle was nothing more than “Dakota’s younger sister,” whereas in recent years – and even more so after The Neon Demon – only Elle will linger on long in the mind of the cultural zeitgeist, while Dakota will only be faintly recalled as “Elle’s older sister”. It’s harsh but honest, much like the competitive and shallow modelling world that The Neon Demon casts such a bright and revealing light upon.
The most immediately noticeable qualities about The Neon Demon are its score and its visuals. Both of these areas Refn is renowned for being exceptional in. The 80s-esque synth soundtrack to Drive elevated the feel of that film and Refn clearly knows when he’s stumbled upon a good thing, because he uses a very similar soundtrack here. It’s so effective, in fact, that we immediately purchased the album upon exiting the cinema.
The sublime nature of the cinematography and visuals within Refn’s films is so integral to his filmmaking style that is now more than expected of him. In this sense, Refn already sets himself up with a very tall order before he even shoots a new project. The Neon Demon delivers on that expectation, with a sublime and surrealist visual quality. The Los Angeles depicted here is one that is soaked in sombre tones (shady motels, cold mansions, pure white photoshoot sets), which are then punctuated – as the film’s title might suggest – with bright, flashing scenes that are full of colour and beauty. Refn and cinematographer Natasha Braier ignite in each other’s collaborative company, providing Refn’s most sumptuously gorgeous film to date.
Crossing taboo boundaries is something that Refn isn’t scared to wade whole-heartedly into. What we love about him is that he doesn’t go too far with this, like some other directors do (Lars Von-Trier), and rather is able to push boundaries and shock the audience, whilst still retaining moral integrity. The shocks are relevant to progressing the plot, rather than for their own sake.
Certainly The Neon Demon‘s most shocking scene – and the one that no doubt caused the boos and exiting of the cinema at Cannes (while those who remained gave the film a standing ovation that lasted 17 minutes upon the film’s close) – is when Jena Malone’s character Ruby performs an act of necrophilia, while imagining that she is sleeping with Jesse. This scene certainly pulls no punches and is enormously in the face of the audience, without apology, but we can see its value as part of the whole, in serving to highlight the true nature of Ruby, the persistence of lust, as well as the things that those in this business are capable of doing behind closed doors.
The second most disturbing scene is surely the film’s cannibalistic finale, which sees Jesse murdered and eaten by Ruby and the two models, Gigi and Sarah (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee), in their own twisted attempt to steal some of Jesse’s effervescent beauty for themselves. However, Refn is smart enough not to show the actual draining and carving of Jesse’s body. Instead he cuts to such shots as Ruby bathing in Jesse’s blood and Gig and Sarah showering the gore away from their elegant bodies.
Something can also be said for having enough bravado to provide such a bleak ending for the film’s leading character. There seems to be a moral within; if you chase vapid beauty at the cost of all else, within an industry that thrives on consuming and spitting out young talent, then expect to be consumed yourself too (in this case, quite literally). One of the film’s most memorable lines is “beauty isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,” which rings painfully true of Hollywood and the modelling world’s approach to stardom.
We’ve already stressed just how great Elle Fanning is in this film, but to provide one prime example of this, we felt that her very best moment was just before she was about to step out on stage to close the modelling show. In this a very stunning and surreal scene, in which Jesse flits between “deer in the headlights” (as Ruby described her) personality and a suave, confident Jesse who knows without a doubt that she is better than everyone else. It’s a pivotal moment for the character and from this point on, Jesse retains that arrogant aloofness, even to the point of telling the very sweet Dean (the film’s moral pivot) to “leave, then,” when he points out that they shouldn’t be in the company of such shallow individuals.
The supporting cast is incredible too. Abbey Lee (Mad Max: Fury Road) and Bella Heathcote (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) prove that they hold more than just idealised looks by delivering taught and assured performances alongside Fanning. Jena Malone we were less wowed by, but only perhaps because we’re far more familiar with her work and because her character here is the least intriguing of the bunch (we guessed from the start they she would turn out to be the prime antagonist). Keanu Reeves holds a briefer role, but he is also very effective as a scumbag motel owner and sleuthing rapist.
Many would have claimed Drive to be Refn’s best film up until this point. While we do adore Drive, we feel that The Neon Demon is narratively superior. This is a film that we know we will re-watch many times, whereas Drive hasn’t been revisited often by us. When the bigger picture of Refn’s career is looked back upon, in years to come, we think that this might just prove to be his stand-out masterpiece.
The Neon Demon is Nicolas Winding Refn’s most ambitious, wholly effective and powerful film to date (which should speak volumes, for a director with a back catalogue such as Refn’s), as well as Elle Fanning’s most luxurious performance to date. It does hold some very challenging content that won’t sit well with certain moviegoers, but these are few and far between and they only serve to boost the impressiveness of the whole, rather than detract from it. See the film, bathe in the beauty of it and marvel at Refn’s masterful command of his art form.
Image credits: Space Rocket Nation, Vendian Entertainment, Bold Films