It’s becoming increasingly clear that Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 crossover hit Drive is something of an outlier in his body of work; an unexpectedly accessible stepchild that’s drawn welcome attention, but who doesn’t exactly represent the general personality of the rest of the clan. Certainly Refn has done little to coddle the wider audience Drive afforded him. 2013’s Only God Forgives divided audiences quite neatly with its dark vacancy, graphic imagery and menacing tone. The Neon Demon is unlikely to win anyone back.
Not that Refn seems to particularly care. He’s forging a career as an artist; an auteur. He works within specific budgets maintaining complete control over the films he creates. The results continue to provoke awe and nausea, but few directors working today attack the cinema with such a confident vision. When being interviewed for Only God Forgives, Refn infamously said his intention was to “fuck” the audience. He evidently hasn’t finished. If anything, he’s turning his own style of cinema into a concept in and of itself.
The Neon Demon is a Nicolas Winding Refn branded film. Twice during the film’s luxurious, ominous opening titles we are presented with his initials bonded together like a logo that can be carved out and stamped on a clothing line, a billboard, jewellery… a lifestyle choice. It’s fitting – deliberate even – given his new film is set within the Los Angeles fashion industry, as young, pretty Jesse (Elle Fanning) arrives in town and causes quite a stir with her natural beauty.
From its opening scene – in which Jesse is introduced slumped over a fainting couch covered in blood – Refn makes it clear that Hollywood is just as much the target here as the catwalks. A cut reveals she is just on set. It’s a mock-up. As we look back into the lenses of the cameras, the duality between fashion and film as industries seems quite pressing, drawing The Neon Demon closer to multiple other movies documenting the insatiable, destructive appetite of Tinsel Town. Generally speaking, The Neon Demon follows a fairly predictable path for much of it’s ensuing running time, yet it’s the manner by which Refn walks us there that both startles and impresses.
Refn has wholesale dedicated his movies to directors before (both Drive and Only God Forgives named Alejandro Jodorowsky in their closing credits), and while The Neon Demon is dedicated to his wife Liv, the influence of other filmmakers is pronounced. The gaudy colour palette of Dario Argento’s Suspiria, the murderous Hollywood of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Even more recently, the blood flecked precision horror of Richard Bates Jr’s Excision or, more pointedly, Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer’s underrated and underseen Starry Eyes.
Yet while Refn consumes influences and incorporates them as formal hat-tips, he builds them into his own version of what film can be. He makes them his own. The Neon Demon is the first film to seem strongly inspired by Jonathan Glazer’s incredible Under The Skin, at least, in terms of its use of space to create tone.
Frequently Refn’s characters here are displayed in the centre of incredible voids, be it Jesse during her fashion shoots or her photographer friend Dean (Karl Glusman) sat on a Hollywood hillside with eternal darkness behind him. Aside from a few busier locations – a motel, a coroner’s office, a hillside mansion – much of The Neon Demon looks as though it’s taking place aboard some delirious spaceship. It feels detached from reality and our standard notions of identifiable spaces; a physical echoing of the warped world Jesse finds herself in.
She is Alice in Refn’s nightmarish wonderland, and while Fanning convinces utterly in the role, she is not without notable backup. Jena Malone is particularly memorable as make-up artist Ruby, who takes it upon herself to steer Jesse through the pitfalls and perils ahead of her, seemingly out of attraction. As things progress, Ruby is shaded with darker concerns, and Malone makes her seem pitiful and conniving in equal measure. See also Abbey Lee playing Sarah, one of a legion of young women competing for the limelight Jesse finds herself in. She’s all eyes. A huntress. When Jesse sees a dark shape in her motel room, it seems likely it’s Sarah, crouched in the dark, ready to pounce.
Refn has said that The Neon Demon was an effort for to get in touch with his inner sixteen year old girl. With the film now available, it’s daunting to pry into that statement further. Certainly in an effort to capture a more feminine side of his work, he’s surrounded himself with some strong female talent. Aside from the predominantly female cast (see also Christina Hendricks, all too briefly), Refn brought in Mary Laws and Polly Stenham on screenwriting duties in hopes of giving the sparse dialogue a ring of truth (jury’s out), and placed photography in the dynamic hands of Natasha Braier. Unsurprisingly The Neon Demon looks amazing from start to finish, like a giallo themed Vogue editorial.
Yet as collaborative as the medium is, this is an NRW film through and through. With fairy tale synths from Cliff Martinez wrapping everything up in an audio cocoon, The Neon Demon is defiantly on brand. Refn’s ego is built into the film, making it feel – depending on how favourable you find it – either totally personal or insufferably indulgent. The Neon Demon doesn’t have anything especially ‘new’ to say about the fashion world, but it does reinterpret its arguments in dazzling, grotesque ways, especially in the final reel. Here it seems, momentarily, as though what little plot there was has been sucked out an airlock, only for Refn to land gratuitously on-point.
There is torpor in the mid-section, granted, but otherwise this is a deliciously vicious remix of how venal and self-consuming the fashion world can be. The simplest measure of which can be seen in the eyes of a lauded designer mid-film when he sees Jesse perform her ‘walk’ for him. There’s a palpable sensation that he could eat her alive.
If you’re after easily digestible, pacy popcorn cinema, you won’t find it here. If, however, you have an idea of the kind of warped dream Refn is likely to have prepared for you, please, find a cinema before it’s too late. To echo the words of director Alex Ross Perry recently, see this film. Don’t wait to merely watch it at home.