Refn remains as divisive as ever, but it's hard to escape the other-worldy style of his latest effort. Pretentious for sure, but there's plenty of other things going on here to keep this one well worth the price of admission.
The latest poster-boy for film snobbery the world over, Nicolas Winding-Refn sends his own mammoth ego into overdrive with his latest indulgent effort. A treat for eyes, ears and most notably brains.
The Drive director’s newest hunk of European-infused horror finds clueless runaway Jesse (Elle Fanning) hoping to cash in on her good looks, as she delves into the dark depths of the Los Angeles modelling scene. Obviously this being Refn though, all is not quite as it seems, and Jesse’s overnight success doesn’t quite sit well with her other fellow models. Violence, necrophilia and most notably cannibalism ensues.
It’s Refn’s own attempt at distilling the classic ‘fame monster’ myth, one that is very clearly outdated but luckily brought to life here with a never-ending amount of style and intrigue. In fact, never before has ‘every frame a painting’ been more relevant: each shot oozes with layer after layer of both meaning and general aesthetic brilliance.
It goes almost without saying that on a technical level, The Neon Demon is head and shoulders above most others; its soaring costumes and production designs delivering gasp after twisted gasp. But the real magic here comes from the incredible synchronicity of sound and image.
Refn veteran Cliff Martinez, a household name following his neon-soaked scoring on Drive, masters the glitz and glam of his director’s vision, folding off of Natasha Braier’s stunning photography with total, seemingly effortless, accuracy. As a single feat of filmmaking, The Neon Demon simply cannot be ignored.
That is, unless from a cinematic perspective, you bruise easily. This is not by any means a pleasant watch. As delicate as Refn is with his framing and layering, the violence comes crashing through like a runaway freight train, covered in barbed wire and carrying a pack of blood-thirsty lions, with Charles Manson at the wheel.
At first it almost seems as if he’s taken the morales of exploitation and mistranslated them into some form of pulpy art project, but as The Neon Demon ticks on, without even a whiff of trashiness present, one begins to discover that Refn has his own plans. Argento and co. may be distant relatives of his ferociously bonkers style, but this is very much its own beast entirely.
It’s ultimately a hard pill to swallow, but when you do there’s plenty of Refn’s world to get lost in. This is no angry, muddied stab at symbolism in the vein of Only God Forgives or Ryan Gosling’s own passable Lost River, but very much the real deal, expertly sewn together, right down to its very casting.
Fanning is an honest delight in the lead, managing an almost unparalleled balance between the virginal innocence of Jesse and the cold-blooded arrogance of the so-called ‘demon’ that takes her over. Jena Malone has never been better as Jesse’s twisted friend, and a surprise turn from Keanu Reeves, playing harshly against type, keeps the slower sections lively. But it’s always Fanning who we’re drawn back to, time and time again.
Very clearly though, The Neon Demon is not an experience meant for everyone. It’s other-worldly demeanour and seriously unsettling tone will certainly divide almost every audience that sees it, and as much as pompous filmy-types will have a field day with Refn’s constant artiness, blockbuster fans are far more likely to still be demanding the Danish director’s head.
It might still be a little too ice cold, and Refn’s dialogue is often far too on-the-nose, meaning it still doesn’t quite match the perfectly aligned Hollywood-meets-arthouse wonders of 2011’s Drive, but there’s plenty of substance here to make for a thoroughly involving watch.
Let it stand as a mid-way point on the Refn scale, between beautifully-orchestrated and uncomfortably bananas.
The Neon Demon (2016), directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, is distributed in the UK by Icon Film Distribution. Certificate 18.