By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)
After receiving universal acclaim with 2011’s Drive and discordant responses for 2013’s Only God Forgives, Danish writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn is back in theaters with another film that has already polarized audiences and critics. Refn’s The Neon Demon takes a story similar to All About Eve and sets it in a glossy, but seedy and depraved modeling world. With gorgeously composed cinematography by Natasha Braier and an ethereal score by composer Cliff Martinez, The Neon Demon is a sublime visual and aural experience. That said, the script does leave much to be desired and the story does go into bizarre and disturbing territories. Refn does succeed in making a remarkable film, but one that is an appalling experience that requires patience, courage and a strong stomach.
Elle Fanning stars a Jesse, a young, naive and innocent aspiring model who moves to Los Angeles to pursue her career. A well-respected model agency signs up Jesse and give her first big gigs where she attracts the attentions of an enigmatic photographer (Desmond Harrington) and a huge fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola). The two men instantly fall in love with Jesse’s look, as does makeup artist Ruby (Jenna Malone) who becomes one of Jesse’s few friends in L.A. Ruby introduces her to veteran models Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote) who fear and despise Jesse, whose label as the “next big thing” threatens their already waning careers. As Jesse’s career takes off and her ego gets more inflated, she soon learns how cut-throat and dog-eat-dog the modeling world is when beauty reveals its ugly underbelly.
Written and directed by Refn who co-wrote the screenplay with Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, The Neon Demon is glossy, neon bathed journey into a dark, lascivious and shallow world that hides behind a beautiful facade to mask its real ugliness. Refn clearly draws inspirations from auteurs like Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch for his perfectly composed shots and surreal, dream-like sequences. He and composer Cliff Martinez are a match made in heaven, as the music compositions made for Refn’s films create the perfect atmosphere for the incredible images on screen. The long, dialogue-free and slow-burning moments that irked and frustrated some audiences in Only God Forgives will definitely be a source of ire for the same people who watch this movie. Refn’s style is obviously not for impatient audiences with short attention spans. Audiences will have to wait longingly for a payoff, and wow, Refn delivers in a brutal, disturbing and ugly way.
The film is definitely a deliberately paced horror film intended to shock and disgust its viewers. Just as Refn paints the modeling world as filthy, greedy, and cannibalistic, his film also comes across as such. The problem I had with the writing and direction is that Refn’s movie has the effect of being hit over-the-head, out of the blue, with his already obvious message. The end result is a beautiful and gorgeous mask of visuals that eventually reveal a horrendous predatory monster. It is a movie that might just turn off even his staunchest supporters.
That is not to say I didn’t like the film. I actually can appreciate what Refn is trying to accomplish with his movie, but I feel the execution in the end is a bit flawed and excessive. This is no fault of the cast whatsoever, though. From the sweet and innocent acting Elle Fanning to the desperate and sadistic has-beens portrayed by Lee and Heathcote, every single actor delivers solid performances. One particular stand-out is Jenna Malone who, perhaps, portrays the most interesting character in the film. Ruby, the makeup artist comes across as down-to-earth and unassuming in the beginning of the film. As we the audience gets better acquainted with her, we soon learn about her dark side. There is probably no other fully realized character in the film (save for the main character), and Malone absolutely gives it her all. The film also features some memorable, entertaining, and disturbing performances from Keanu Reeves, Desmond Harrington, and Alessandro Nivola.
So at this point, it should go without saying that this movie truly earns its R-rating and is not intended for children, the weak of heart, the squeamish, and not for those easily offended by behavior labeled as deviant and violent. Refn once again offers a bitter pill that is difficult to stomach, despite its pretty packaging and presentation. He is clearly a director who is not in search of popularity and box office success, but one who has yet to find the perfect marriage between his amazing visuals and extraordinary writing.