“True beauty is the only thing that matters.”
Like him or loathe him, Nicolas Winding Refn knows what he likes, knows how to put it on screen and doesn’t care if the audience shares his vision. This was evident with 2013’s Only God Forgives, a film that proved almost as divisive as the UK’s Brexit vote and still has people questioning what the hell was going on to this day. But Refn knew what he wanted to do and couldn’t care less if I liked it or not. The same can most definitely be said for his most recent effort, The Neon Demon.
Fresh to Los Angeles, aspiring model Jesse (Ellie Fanning) finds that her youth and natural beauty help her stand out from the overcrowded industry she’s trying to break in to and quickly gets her a deal with a local agency. Befriending make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone) and catching the eye of models and designers alike, the new face in the crowd is fast learning how to get what she wants and needs.
But, all this good stuff comes with its fair share of bad. Off of the catwalk and out of the designers fitting rooms, Jesse finds herself on a dark path. Living in a seedy motel with a creepy manager (Keanu Reeves) means she sees and hears things that literally becomes the stuff of her nightmares. With all her fame and beauty comes an army of women looking to take them both from her and leave her carcass for the wolves; and her struggle to keep herself safe and sane is quite possibly going to be her undoing.
Nicholas Winding Refn has definitely taken a step into Lynch territory for his more recent films. But where Only God Forgives felt aimless with very little to say, The Neon Demon most certainly has a point to make. As we watch Jesse simultaneously climb her ladder and lose her innocence, we get the feeling that we are supposed to loathe the people she’s surrounded herself with and the industry she is trying to break in to.
As always, Refn’s direction is absolutely superb. This time around – yes, I’ll keep making comparisons to Only God Forgives – we get a real balance between loud, flashy and neon scenes and those with a simpler palette. Refn’s matador levels of love for the colour red are toned down dramatically from the film’s predecessor, but it is still very much there; making you think you’ve just fallen into a Quasar arena! But it’s not as overpowering as it has been in the past and it doesn’t detract from the film this time around. Every scene makes some sort of sense and it doesn’t feel like it’s been shoehorned in to fill some bizarre fetish. There’s never been any denying Winding Refn’s skills when it comes to putting a gorgeous film together. The Neon Demon is the greatest testament to that.
The performances all-round solidify this film’s quality. From Ellie Fanning’s innocent newcomer transformed to Jena Malone’s wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing make up artist and everyone in between, Refn’s razor sharp script has been done proud by a cast of well known actors and “I’m sure I know them from something” performers alike.
Rounding all this off, Refn has reunited with Drive and Only God Forgives composer Cliff Martinez to put together a soundtrack that will stand out from anything else you hear this year. This synth heavy backing track is what makes The Neon Demon what it is and, I would go so far as to say that, while the film is almost as shallow as its subject matter – done on purpose, I imagine – the soundtrack is where all of the film’s personality lies. Outside of the film, it’s weirdly stimulating and haunting at the same time. I haven’t stopped listening to it since I left the screening!
Bottom line, love it or hate it (and I think there will be plenty of arguments either side) The Neon Demon is a brilliantly put together and scathing look at the LA modelling industry. It’s Winding Refn’s Maps to the Stars and it’s certainly a film that you should be doing everything in your power to watch.