Arthouse ‘darling’ Nicholas Winding Refn has made a name for himself by enticing viewers into his vivid, dreamlike worlds with hypnotizing synth-heavy soundtracks and lush neon-coated environments and then employing shock tactics to make you regret falling into his beautiful traps. His sympathizers would call his approach ‘challenging’, while his skeptics would rather use the word ‘antagonistic’. With his newest dark satire/ horror show, The Neon Demon, nobody is wrong.
After landing a surprise hit with 2011’s Drive, Refn was seemingly disgusted by his own ability to appeal to a broad audience and I wouldn’t be surprised if he actually despises those who continue to put Drive (and to a lesser extent his other well-known feature, Bronson) in a box with other iconic mainstream fare like Pulp Fiction and Fight Club. As if a direct response to Drive‘s baffling success, Refn then made Only God Forgives, an even slower, stranger, darker and more insubstantial flick that appeared to be made from the ground up with one goal in mind: to lose all the fans he had just gained. And now we get The Neon Demon, further complicating the filmmaker’s strange love/hate relationship with his audience.
At first, Refn deliberately beckons mainstream audiences with an impressive, recognizable cast consisting of Elle Fanning, Keanu Reeves, Bella Heathcote, Jenna Malone and Christina Hendricks. In fact, for a very long stretch, the movie seems to be even more accessible than Drive, and I would dare to say that the first hour and a half of this movie is the best work I’ve seen from him. The narrative is straightforward and surprisingly conventional. Jesse (played by Fanning) is a sixteen year old girl with no family, who comes to Los Angeles in the hopes of sparking a modeling career. She says she has no skills, though she knows she’s pretty and modeling is one way to take advantage of that biological lottery ticket. She meets with an agent (Hendricks), who promises she has a promising career ahead of her… so long as she can take the pressure.
Tropes abound. Jesse has to deal with a potential love interest in a photographer she finds on Craigslist (played by Karl Glusman, thankfully much better than he was in Gaspar Noe’s boring Love), a shady landlord (Reeves) and a couple of absurdly vapid, beauty-obsessed mean girls (Heathcote and real-life model Abbey Lee) who feel threatened by Jesse’s sudden rise through the ranks. Though everything is laced with Refn’s usual neon and synth that immediately make the film look and sound like little else out there (it is one of the most gorgeous features of the year, full stop), these are all familiar narrative elements, paced quicker than his usual molasses schtick. It’s mercifully normal.
Perhaps the bigger shock for those familiar with the director is just how much depth he wrings out of this story. The movie is set up as a pitch-black satire not just of the modeling industry, but of Western society’s general obsession with beauty. You could even say it goes beyond satire and becomes an intervention. Absurdist in its portrayal just how far people are willing to go to be beautiful, there’s a very blunt but necessary message to be gleamed. A lot of the film’s effectiveness comes from Jesse’s character, who is said to have a ‘special something’ beyond simple good looks. What exactly that means is never touched on again, and at first I assumed they were either referring to her obvious youth advantage, or to her awkward yet endearing innocence. But I came to the conclusion that what really makes Jesse special is her self-awareness.
As an outsider to the cutthroat modeling industry, Jesse sees what others can not (or will not) about themselves and she’s willing to point it out. When another model says “nobody likes how they look”, she responds “I do”. When Glusman’s character warns her not to become like the other models, she corrects him, saying “they want to be like me”. Helped along by just how exceptional of a talent Fanning is (I remain steadfast in my belief that she is the greatest working actor of her generation), Jesse is equally likable and scary in her awareness. She is clearly above the rest of the terrible people surrounding her, but this also means she wields a dangerous power over them, one she seems more than willing to use.
Either way, Fanning keeps everything grounded and is clearly Refn’s most well-realized and entrancing character since Tom Hardy donned Charles Bronson’s mustache. Though many of the supporting performances are very off-kilter (likely a testament to Refn’s main weakness at directing dialogue than with the actors themselves), Fanning feels alive and alert, vulnerable yet smart, wary of her own attractiveness though not entirely free from the problems that come with it (men want to force themselves on her, women want to force themselves on her, jungle cats want to force themselves on her, etc). Tough there are some pacing issues in that her character transforms far too quickly, whenever Fanning is on screen there is a constant, engaging push and pull to see if she’ll succumb to vanity or overcome it, and a masterful sense of tension forms from that. She is this movie’s greatest asset.
Have I made all of this sound interesting? Entertaining? Well it is… up to a point. A very sudden point, when the movie flips everything on its head and becomes one of the most brutal horror films in recent memory. And when I say ‘horror’, I mean it in the old fashioned, genuinely horrifying sense rather than in the modern startling sense. In its exceptionally gonzo finale, all narrative conventions go out the window and this fairly normal, albeit consistently unnerving movie we’ve just watched is gone. And it’s not coming back. In other words, The Neon Demon goes full Refn (and you never go full Refn). Instead, we get the darkest, most uncomfortable, most disgusting imagery the provocateur can come up with and if that sounds vague, you’ll thank me later.
It’s a bait and switch, a Trojan horse, and at this point it’s honestly hard to tell if the man is continuing a campaign to rid himself of the adulation Drive granted him , or if he just wants those same people to expand their comfort zones. I believe it’s the former – if he wanted to desensitize the audience to his fucked up shit, he could have eased them into it. But the transition from ‘mildly dark’ to ‘Velma-can’t-find-her-glasses-black’ is immediate, disorienting, and aggressively unpleasant. He wants you to hate it. And hate this ending I did – as much as I loved everything up to that point, and as much as I’ve gained a stomach for messed-up content over years of watching movies by Harmony Korine, Gaspar Noe, Lars von Trier and more, Refn seems so painfully obsessed with outdoing himself and turning on his audience, that it’s hard to take him seriously.
He had us in the palm of his hand, he was saying something interesting, fresh and raw, but then decided it wasn’t good enough. At least in his previous movies, the more shocking elements felt consistent with his goals. Here, he’s a slave to our expectations as much as we are to his. But that’s the danger with focusing on a so-called auteur like Refn instead of on the movies themselves. We can’t really know what he’s thinking when he delivers images as graphic and repellent as those featured in the back half of this movie. We can only know what they make us feel.
For me, the overall experience was a mixture of utmost admiration topped off with intense frustration. Though the ending does take away from the momentum of the narrative and deceptive depth of its themes, it doesn’t negate them. This is an aesthetically appealing, uncharacteristically lively and pleasurably puzzling rabbit hole descent that I can’t really recommend to anyone, but can’t wait to watch again regardless. I don’t know if that’s what Refn wants or not. But I don’t really care anymore.
Score: 4 out of 5