The Neon Demon is disgustingly depraved, teeming with an unearned arrogance, and it might just be the best film of the year. If you were hoping that Nicolas Winding Refn would return to the more straight-laced approach seen in 2011’s Drive then you’ll be disappointed. This latest feature is very much from the same mould as his misunderstood masterpiece Only God Forgives. The hugely divisive director again proves that he has little interest in compromising his artistic vision for the sake of audience enjoyment. While this attitude has undoubtedly hurt his body of work both critically and commercially, it’s admirable that Winding Refn is so unrelenting in his desire to bring his pictures to the silver screen in their purest forms.
The Neon Demon opens with Jesse (Elle Fanning) sprawled out on a sofa in a glossy blue dress, blood dripping out from a deep slash in her throat. This scene perfectly embodies the thematic heart of the film: The contrast between innocence and corruption takes centre stage. On a basic level, the film sees Winding Refn playing with the typical notions of beauty and examining how often those who appear perfect are the most broken. Like his other works, The Neon Demon‘s most engrossing aspect is the way it constantly plays with your expectations. Just when you think you have unravelled its many mysteries, a new wrinkle is thrown into the mix.
The world of fashion and modelling is perhaps a perfect fit for Winding Refn. It’s an industry often accused of vanity and similarly, the director’s work is all too often accused of being mere “style over substance”. Jesse, like many girls before her, comes to Los Angeles with big dreams but quickly finds herself thrown into the lion’s den competing against women who will sink to unimaginable levels to come out on top. The Neon Demon is very much a slow spiral into madness from an almost normal beginning (well, normal compared to Winding Refn’s standards). Things slowly descend into a repugnant collage of blood and vibrant colours that will leave you both enthralled and repulsed.
Jesse quickly becomes the talk of the town as designers swoon over her youth and older models jealously yearn not just to be like her, but to be her. Much like everybody she encounters in LA, the audience is instantaneously intrigued by Jesse. However, the suspicion that there’s something off about her creeps in before the first act draws to a close. Though one rather creepy photographer claims, “beauty isn’t just the most important thing, it’s the only thing” this notion is quickly torn apart as Jesse’s true character is exposed. Elle Fanning’s performance is near perfect. She emotes frequently without dialogue, bringing to life a complex character who is one of Refn’s best creations.
Jena Malone’s Ruby is equally indecipherable, at first appearing to be a friend Jesse can rely on. However, like everything in The Neon Demon, first impressions can be deceiving. Malone is the centrepiece of the film’s most memorable scenes in what will likely be a career defining performance. Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote portray a pair of models that take an almost instant dislike to Jesse. Their vulture-like attitudes make them two of the most detestable but fascinating characters you’re likely to encounter at the cinema this year. Keanu Reeves has a brief role as the owner of a motel but, truthfully, had an unknown been cast in his place it’d be a part not discussed such is his minior impact on the film. Karl Glusman’s Dean, a sort of first act love interest, is the voice of the audience. He sees the world that Jesse is being absorbed into for what it really is: a dangerous web which nobody truly survives.
Though The Neon Demon is impressive across the board, it’s the final third that truly elevates it to near masterpiece status. As the uneasy sense of foreboding that permeates the film comes to a skin crawling head. It’s these moments in which you’re thoroughly disgusted but unable to even blink that truly justifies Winding Refn as one of the best active directors. The Neon Demon will face plenty of criticism from those that have disliked his previous work, but few films can stun a whole auditorium into complete silence so consistently.
It may not be Winding Refn’s most visually enchanting film (that honour goes to Only God Forgives), but nevertheless, The Neon Demon is still a feast for the eyes (and ears). The environments in several scenes have more character than any of the actors inhabiting them; such is their depth and intrigue. It’s easy to get so consumed in digesting the surroundings that you neglect to follow the film’s sparse narrative. The pounding techno soundtrack only enhances the vivid aesthetics as well. Though the general quality of the screenplay may be up for debate, it’d be absolutely futile to even jokingly suggest that this isn’t one of the most hauntingly stylish films released in the last decade.
The Neon Demon is a stunning, revolting, and utterly enthralling work of art—one that demands your attention. The familiar complaints of “style over substance” will be voiced by some, and there’s no denying that it’s as self-indulgent as cinema comes, but this isn’t a film made with those people in mind. If you’ve already decided that Nicolas Winding Refn is not the director for you then The Neon Demon will do nothing to dissuade you, but if you’ve harboured an appreciation for his previous works then you must experience this flawed masterpiece.