The Neon Demon is certainly the most visceral cinema experience I’ve had this year. The film is highly stylized; a sort of satirical, horror, art-house noire. The imagery is graphic. The story flows like a dream with a pulsating electronica score. Director/writer Nicolas Winding Refn has a flair for the bizarre and he knocks it out of the park with this latest effort. Audiences may be disgusted, enthralled, oddly titillated, either way; they’re going to have a reaction.
Elle Fanning stars as Jesse, a sixteen year old girl trying to make it as a model in Los Angeles. On her own, she lives in a fleabag motel run by a depraved pervert (Keanu Reeves). Jesse makes a big splash in the world of fashion. She radiates innocence and naiveté her natural beauty attracting attention like sharks circling blood. She befriends an entranced make-up artist (Jena Malone), but makes quick enemies of her modelling competition (Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee). Everyone wants something from Jesse, and she knows it.
Refn’s take on the modelling world is dark and macabre. With Los Angeles as the backdrop, he paints an ugly picture of the fashion industry. The women are plastic surgery addicts. Mutilating themselves to fit an impossible ideal of beauty. Even worse are the agents, photographers, and designers that prey on girls like vultures. The dialogue from the characters is narcissism incarnate. It’s heavily satirical, but their delivery is so raw and unflinching. One particularly brutal scene has a designer shredding a girl’s tailored beauty to the natural look of his muse.
The Neon Demon is not for the faint-hearted. There are scenes in this film that had my jaw on the floor. No spoilers here, but trust me when I say that they are extreme. Audible gasps were heard from the audience in my screening. Some critics have lambasted the film for this take, but I’m in a different corner. Refn is portraying a sinister world of artificial beauty. Few women can achieve this state naturally. His point is that those that commit to this goal are giving up their souls. The path taken is bleak and unforgiving, leading to heinous acts of barbarism.
I recommend The Neon Demon purely on the basis that it is radically different, especially if you choose to watch it on Amazon streaming. I had major issues with the narrative and the message, but was fascinated nonetheless. Most films spoon feed you a decidedly safe viewpoint. Refn does not. He is pushing boundaries over a cliff. It may come off to some as artsy and nonsensical, but you have to give him credit for a distinct vision.