Review: ‘The Neon Demon’ is a Beautiful Film About Awful, Beautiful People

By June 23, 2016
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Nicolas Winding Refn has made a name for himself as a divisive and experimental filmmaker. He’s the kind of artist that has the ability, through his style alone, to just rub audiences and film critics the wrong way. I’ll be honest when I say that I have not been Refn’s biggest supporter over the years either, being one of the few a bit too underwhelmed with the second half of Drive and completely bored and turned off by the entirety of Only God Forgives. Going into his latest film, The Neon Demon then, I was ready to either be turned off or on board for what kind of strange, probably fetish-heavy ride he was about to take me on. Like I knew, instinctually, whether or not I would like the film within the first few seconds alone.

Opening with a title sequence as stylized and vibrant as you’d expect a movie about the fashion industry told from the eyes of Refn to be, the movie then opens on a shot of a young girl, posing in front of a camera, covered in blood, combining the film’s message about beauty and violence instantly. Some may find it a bit too on-the-nose for its own good, but no one’s ever accused Refn of being a subtle filmmaker either. From there on, we learn more about the girl, her photographer, and her makeup artist as she’s thrown into the breakneck world of fashion and vanity in ways that she may not have expected, but surprisingly, may not be opposed to either.

Elle Fanning gives her best performance yet as the new girl in town, Jesse, the central muse of the film, who’s youth and “natural” beauty not only makes her an instant hit in the industry, but also an instant threat to the other girls around her as well. Here, those girls are played by Bella Heathcote as Gigi, a model with a penchant for plastic surgery, and Abbey Lee as Sarah, a dangerous and blunt veteran model who becomes increasingly more desperate and eager to rip Jesse’s appeal away from her.

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Both Heathcote and Lee give noteworthy performances here, with Lee bringing a simmering onscreen presence to the quiet, but almost always angry Sarah and Heathcote is responsible for a number of the film’s biggest laughs as the bratty and cocky Sarah, who’s arrogance is increasingly tested the longer Jesse is around her. The film’s best performance and standout though, belongs to Jena Malone as Ruby, a makeup artist for the models (with a mysterious side gig as well), who’s pure onscreen talent and presence is given more room to grow and be put on display here than ever before.

If there’s one thing that no one can deny about Refn as well, it’s his eye for visual artistry and poetry onscreen, and in Neon Demon, his style and stunning visual instincts feel the most well put to use, fitting for a film where beauty is the only thing that matters. The cinematography by Natasha Braier is breathtaking throughout, and the way Refn shoots Los Angeles manages to make it feel like a land capable of providing fairy tale wonders while hiding untold nightmares, which doesn’t feel far off from the actual city itself either. Combining the gorgeous cinematography with Refn’s skill behind the scenes, and Cliff Martinez’s fantastic, constantly pounding score and The Neon Demon feels like the first Refn film where every aspect of it is working on an equal level with each other.

Christina Hendricks has one memorable scene in the film, which will leave you wanting more from her character, as she helps Fanning’s Jesse get into the fashion world by setting her up with her first professional photographer. She brings her signature sass and casual cruelty that Mad Men fans may recognize, though you can’t help but feel like she may be underutilized here. The same goes for Keanu Reeves, who plays a minor role in the film, and while he delivers a solid performance as the manager at Jesse’s Pasadena Motel, he doesn’t get all that much to do onscreen either.

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Unfortunately, like in most of Refn’s movies, there’s a noticeable change in pacing and quality in the film’s final act, as if he was enjoying being in the world and story too much, that he forgot there needed to be a conclusion to the story. It’s not nearly as jarring or exploitative as the final acts in Drive or Only God Forgives, but it contains moments that will probably force many audience members to turn away from the screen, or straight up walk out, as a few in my screening did.

Without a doubt, Refn goes to the most depraved corners of his psyche here, but they felt more in line with the film’s story and characters than perhaps any of the other exploitative moments in his previous films, not softening their disgusting qualities, but at least making them feel built up to before they arrive.

With all that being said though, The Neon Demon is a stylish, enthralling, and always-captivating journey into what is basically, Refn’s vision of fashion hell. It’s third act may prove to be more difficult than some moviegoers can bare, but for those of you out there who are able to take even the most gut-churning of onscreen images, I think you’ll find The Neon Demon to be perhaps Nicolas Winding Refn’s most rewarding film to date. Here, the enigmatic filmmaker has created a stunning amalgamation of all of his signature, familiar impulses with a story and characters that actually meld well with his sparse amounts of dialogue and visual storytelling techniques. It’s not for everyone, but not even the best Refn movie (which this very well might be) is.

The Neon Demon is set to hit theatres on June 24th.

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Alex Welch

Alex Welch

Alex dreams of meeting a girl with a yellow umbrella, and spends too much time* staring at a movie screen. His vocabulary consists mostly of movie quotes and 80s song lyrics. *Debatable