Nicolas Winding Refn, who imprints his latest film with the moniker NWR, didn’t become a household name until the unabashed success of Drive [’11]; a gritty LA neo-noir that wears its heart on its sleeve and blood on its jacket. Soon, everyone was reaching into the directors back catalog, consuming his prison biopic Bronson [’08] and Valhalla Rising [’09], a film that surmounts to a Nordic acid trip through Mads Mikkelsen’s one good eye. On the surface, his previous works illuminate a stylistic approach that teeters on the edge of excess. However, his visual flair just so happens to balance well with a raw energy, relatable themes and a soundtrack that gives the darker elements of his films an air of pop idiosyncrasy. Then Only God Forgives [’13] arrived after an earnest booing at the Cannes Film Festival, and the director we all embraced became as divisive as his neon drenched subjects.
Enter The Neon Demon, the writer and directors latest entry into his LA-based tale that somehow manages to increase the decadence and saturation left behind by his previous art-house color bomb. Similarly to Drive, the Los Angeles landscape is strewn with the hues of a setting sun, as the cities symbolic palm trees loom over streets that look digitally house-kept. Gone are the grit and smog that has become representative of an iconic west coast city, instead replaced with the quiet haze of pinks and reds that cascade over magazine cutouts, imprinting the sidewalks with a false beauty.
Setting the story within the high-end fashion world of Los Angeles, The Neon Demon works quickly to establish a pace and tone, lingering on 16-year old Jesse (Ellie Fanning) for far too long as her blood splattered body lies poised on a decadent claw-foot couch. A mysterious young photographer looks on with the seductive hunger of a lion, ready to consume whatever meat he can. Fresh off the bus, Jesse begins to delicately traverse the fashion scene with the help of make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone), who introduces her to Sarah (Abby Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), the epitome of diehard, claws out models who envy vitality and youth. As Jesse starts to rise within the delicate tightrope of the industry, the desire to become something more than simply flesh and bone begins to eat away at those around her, creating a kaleidoscope of blood drenched fashion horror.
Now, I’ll admit fully that Drive was my first doorway into the mind of NWR, and like many out there, it blew the door right off its hinges. There is so much pent up rage boiling at the heart of it, and surprisingly, its core is one of those pulsating perfections that lured me in. What it wound up doing in the long run, was hollowing out a deep rooted disappointment in me, as nothing since has driven a hammer down on my senses the way it did. The Neon Demon operates incomparably at exemplifying that disillusionment through style over substance, painting a canvas with sugar-free notions of high-art through slackened ultra-violence.
Sure, that isn’t to say that there aren’t themes and ideas within The Neon Demon that should be heard, but it’s how much we are told to see that burdens the context of the film. Brooding male gazes permeate the screen with prolonged stares that drive the point of power and control deep into transparency. An open wound and the consumption of blood shines a blinding light on the inevitable transformation of Jesse, whose overt deer in the headlights look works to enhance the plastic ideals of Los Angeles’ fallen fashion angels. No matter what the subject is, you can rest assured; it’s told with enough of a conspicuous eye that a decent amount of The Neon Demon‘s imagery winds up feeling comical.
Then the camera deliberately cuts to Jena Malone’s Ruby, who manages to fuse innocent adoration with devilish intent so fluidly that you’d swear one half of the title was meant for her. There’s a scene early on when Jesse visits Ruby on set, and while we take in the excessive stillness of the photographer and his crew, we are treated to an encounter between the two women that mirrors that of a John Hughes film. Ruby’s solemn expression morph’s into a vibrancy that bestows a multitude of dreams, while Jesse falls into that role of youthful shyness, showing just how strong these two actors are at emoting the pleasures of both love and affection. As the two characters entangle themselves in the never-ending web of lust and consumption, their expressions begin exhibiting a metamorphosis, their silent command pulsating behind eyes that could show you the difference between heaven and hell.
It’s a scene that exemplifies the juxtaposition of The Neon Demon with Drive, as the latter’s testosterone fueled male gaze is traded in for that of the females empowering look, though NWR would be fooling you into thinking that’s true. When Jesse ultimately succumbs to what amounts to the neon demon, she attends a cocktail gathering that features the fashion designer, played by uncredited yet noteworthy Alessandro Nivola. Here, we are regaled with an excerpt from Hamlet, forewarning of the battle emanating at the heart of our film. We are then told that “true beauty is the highest currency we have. Without it, we have nothing.” As female dominating as The Neon Demon is, it’s very much a male controlled film, with the multitude of models exerting a vein sense of desperation in order to win over the male controlled industry.
Between the glitter and glam of NWR’s sun soaked set pieces lies a world where demons no longer have horns or visible tails, but highlights, toned cheeks and mascara that runs deeper than the blood they shed. It’s a world that carries the weight of an exhausted auteurs panache, where the message of Hollywood’s fashion scene becomes lost in the visual stimulation of a director that fancies himself an artist of the highest praise. While The Neon Demon showcases subtle nuances of horror, it’s far too little to place it within the genre that has, as of late, been seeing a massive resurgence. Unfortunately, there seems to be little catwalk for a film of this vintage to tread on, as its most glaring fashion faux-pas is that it tries to be high-art, when it’s really just an economy brand Monet.