After watching The Neon Demon, one might get the sense that director and co-writer Nicolas Winding Refn might sorta/kinda have a reasonable amount of contempt for Hollywood fashion models. Just call it a hunch.
After the unmitigated disaster that was Only God Forgives (still bitching about that one) the man who gave us that Ryan Gosling masterpiece, Drive, takes a step back towards the light. A rapidly blinking light set to sweet electronica music. The Neon Demon pulses with devilish delights, mixing dark satire with unabashed horror elements in what amounts to one of the year's best films so far.
In a performance that establishes her once and for all as one of her generation's best, Elle Fanning is a complete marvel as Jesse, a 16 year-old model pretending to be 19 in a city that requires you to stay 19 forever. Blessed with incredible beauty, Jesse aims to make it big on her looks, and while there's a certain innocence about her, it progressively deteriorates as the film plays out.
Not long after her arrival, she meets Ruby (Jena Malone), a makeup artist who is instantly smitten with Jesse. She has what seems to be a maternal instinct towards the young protégé, having seen many models in a similar, no-experience predicament.
Anybody who wants to lay the claim that Refn depicts women negatively in this film should take note of the male characters, who are all monsters. Keanu Reeves is a complete beast as the manager at Jesse's dumpy motel, where mountain lions sneak into rooms, as do the manager. Alessandro Nivola (uncredited) is memorably and hilariously mean as a fashion designer who wants Jesse for his show, and will surely dispose of her with the onset of her first wrinkle. He's a jerk.
In short, Refn doesn't really seem to like anybody in this universe, including Jesse. She starts off as a seemingly virtuous character, but slowly starts to get that "attitude" about her that she will reign supreme because she is pretty. Two other models (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee), who seem to be bit players in the film, become quite prominent by the time credits roll.
The film was heralded as Refn's first true, genuine horror film when it was in production. It's certainly an unsettling film, especially in its last quarter. It's not a full blown horror movie, but it does contain lots of blood, cannibalism, necrophilia and popped-out eyeballs. Okay, maybe it is a full-blown horror film.
By the time Ruby and the models meet Jesse by the pool, The Neon Demon has definitely made a turn for the dark and disturbingly bizarre. It's surprising to find out who the film is really about, and not surprising to see that Refn has no intention of pulling his punches.
Major, major props to cinematographer Natasha Braier, working with Refn for the first time and helping create a visual triumph. Double kudos to Cliff Martinez, Refn mainstay, who delivers an evocative, memorable soundtrack. Mind you, the soundtrack also includes Sia, whose music is seemingly in every movie coming out this year. Her closing track wraps the movie up on a strangely upbeat, and surprisingly effective note.
The Neon Demon is sure to outrage some, and got its share of boos at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Sure, it goes perhaps a bit too far at times, but, boy howdy, does Refn get his point across. And, unlike Only God Forgives, he includes something that feels like a narrative this time out. It's a thin narrative at best, but the movie does have a sense of purpose, and feels like a completed project.
So Refn is back in fine form, and this is a great thing. Only God Forgives was a self-indulgent mess. Drive was a masterpiece. The Neon Demon is a lot closer to being a masterpiece than Forgives, so all is starting to get right in the Refn world.