Nicholas Winding Refn is a director known for his provocative and subversive style. This surrealist horror-thriller, The Neon Demon, is another macabre addition to his filmography.
Elle Fanning portrays Jesse, a sixteen-year-old girl who arrives in Los Angeles to launch her career as a model. As she enters the fashion world, she is assured that she has the qualities to thrive in the industry. Her beauty provokes envy and rage from the other models, Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), which develops into a sinister obsession.
Also, Jesse has to deal with a very creepy motel manager (Keanu Reeves). What starts out as an unassuming and quirky thriller, slowly transforms into a twisted and shocking film, in which Jesse is drawn into an inescapable nightmare.
Even more so than Drive (2011), Refn’s The Neon Demon is experimental and artistic, overlooking narrative and character development for style and visual immersion. Baffling and unevenly paced, I initially had trouble getting into this film as it begins so oddly. I didn’t have a clue what to make of it. Is this an art house film? Is this a suspense film? These are the questions that were running through my head, but because the film’s visual style is so gripping, I found myself entranced by the unfolding events.
The early moments of the film are timid and teasing. There is a lot of weird photo shoots, catwalks, flashing images, and other nonsense. Some people might switch off. However, I stress that you keep watching because The Neon Demon turns into something that will completely challenge your expectations.
Refn’s film is focused on the image and the lengths one is willing to go, to achieve the perfect image. I don’t think The Neon Demon is supposed to be a satire on the fashion industry and some of the superficiality that can come from it, but instead, it appears to be a dark and pessimistic exploration of visual desire and obsession.
When Jesse joins the modelling agency, she becomes the star model and everyone seems to be besotted with her, including makeup artist, Ruby (Jena Malone). Gigi and Sarah are intrigued by her natural beauty, but they feel threatened by it more than anything. Although this may be Refn’s intention, the characters are dreadfully crafted. None of them felt like real people.
They’re all so robotic and even Jesse who’s the main character isn’t that likeable. I found her just plain boring if I’m to be frank. As she becomes more at home in the fashion industry, she does grow in confidence and even becomes narcissistic, but I still found her pretty dull to watch.
I admire the fact that there is nothing conventional about The Neon Demon. The tone, the pacing and the characters are all so other-worldly. It manages to be horrific, ambiguous and quietly suggestive all at the same time. I do really like and appreciate Refn’s unconventional approach, as he appears so devoted to surprising and shocking us, but the problem is, much of the film doesn’t actually make much sense.
In one instance, Jesse’s motel room gets invaded, but there is no explanation to how her room was broken into, and the somewhat unstable motel manager just further adds to the mystery. There are many other bizarre moments, such as the neon triangles and strange symbols that populate the film.
Although The Neon Demon is frustrating, there are still some greatly executed scenes, especially the finale, which literally comes out of nowhere. More logic and greater storytelling would have made this film a lot better. But visually and stylistically, it is excellent.
This definitely isn’t a movie you’ll forget in a hurry. It’s just a shame it’s spoiled by so much uncertainty and misdirection. In the end, The Neon Demon is unique and its unpredictability will leave you forever intrigued.
Quoted: “You know what my mother used to call me? Dangerous. ‘You’re a dangerous girl’. She was right. I am dangerous.”
Director: Nicholas Winding Refn
Writers: Mary Laws, Nicholas Winding Refn, Polly Stenham
Stars: Elle Fanning, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee.
Let me know what you thought of The Neon Demon in the comment section!