The Neon Demon, 2016.
Directed by Nicolas Winding-Refn.
Starring Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Desmond Harrington, Alessandro Nivola, Christina Hendricks, Abbey Lee and Keanu Reeves.
When aspiring model Jesse moves to Los Angeles, her youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will take any means necessary to get what she has.
In a hidey-hole of the cinematic universe lies a select group of filmmakers that dare to reimagine what it means to make movies and what it takes to watch them. Nicolas Winding Refn is such a filmmaker. His movies are like light beams from another world, and when casted against the silver screen, we see the cold, colorful inner space of his dreams and his visions. In Pusher, we saw the nightmarish reality of the Danish underworld, in Bronson we saw the livid, explosive personality of a man who could not exist outside of prison, in Valhalla Rising, we were witness to a one-eyed Viking warrior facing the savagery of an unknown civilization. In his later two films Drive and Only God Forgives he showed us a contrast of heroic anti-archetypes – two men on opposite sides of the spectrum, but both who were beholden to their inner rage, lost in translation to strange love and unutterable yearnings. In his latest film The Neon Demon, Refn alienates all reserves by plunging the viewer into a hostile territory akin to a warzone of the human spirit: the bizarre wonderworld of the fashion industry.
Refn casts Elle Fanning as Jesse, a fish out of water in Los Angeles, seeking work as a model amongst a gaggle of other hopefuls. As soon as she goes out for jobs, she’s immediately perceived as a “diamond in a sea of glass,” and the look on other well-established models’ faces when she innocently steals gigs right out from under them is full of fear, loathing, and hatred. Jesse is a bulldozer of otherworldly magnitude: She knows she’s beautiful but she has no idea the power and collateral damage she’s causing (or does she?) in her wake, and so when she’s glammed by the uncommonly swift process with which she’s inducted into the elite echelon of the fashion world, she begins transforming. She makes friends / enemies in a smitten make-up artist named Ruby (Jena Malone), who is at first her only friend in the industry, and in two deeply jealous models Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), who look at Jesse like she’s a disease. Jesse’s other encounters with the players in her new world are with a dead-eyed creep photographer named Jack (Desmond Harrington) and the pervy boss of the motel she’s staying at, played by a slumming (but well cast) Keanu Reeves.
While I was watching The Neon Demon, it was inevitable that my mind drifted to when I saw David Lynch’s Lost Highway the first time. There are similarities to Lynch’s sensibilities and Refn’s surreal brush strokes, but Refn is much more calculated and careful with his actors than Lynch has ever been. One example of that is a scene in Lost Highway where Patricia Arquette is forced to strip down naked in front of a leering gangster. That scene served no real purpose, but it was a key scene in Lynch’s twisted cinematic universe. In The Neon Demon, there’s a similar scene where Jesse is forced to perform a similar sacrifice to her dignity, but the scene plays out in a totally different and purposeful way. Instead of being humiliated by the experience, Elle Fanning’s character is virtually baptized by the unsettling encounter, and she emerges from it a transformed being. Other scenes where Fanning brazenly walks into uncomfortable situations and transcends the possible humiliations show that she’s an actress worthy of Refn’s careful hand as a director. This was not an easy role to play, and every single time we see her on screen, she’s walking a razor’s edge that any other actress without complete conviction would have failed utterly and completely. There’s never a moment in the movie where Fanning doesn’t succeed in her performance. She’s incredible.
Other performances in the film are equally impressive. Desmond Harrington, looking like the grim reaper with dead eyes and a dangerously sallow complexion, turns in the performance of his career. I don’t know if he lost weight for this role or not, but every time he’s on screen you’re studying his intensely creepy performance, and Refn used him to the best of his abilities. Alessandro Nivola, who plays a nameless (but integral) fashion designer character in the film, has several key scenes with Elle Fanning, and the first time he sees Fanning in the movie he sees a flower in the wasteland of beauty. He sees her as an untouched and unspoiled object of perfection, and everything he says to her (and to us as the audience) is silently portrayed in a look. It’s a superb performance. Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee as the two models who despise Jesse turn in two performances that stretch them as actresses and they manage to be two of the best on-screen villains of the year. Finally, Jena Malone, who plays the sweetly (and then not so sweetly) smitten make-up designer who befriends Jesse, shows us that she’s an underrated actress, and she has several incredibly difficult scenes which I won’t divulge here, but any actress who does what she does on screen here (and does them extremely well) deserves special note.
Refn’s The Neon Demon is quite a unique film. It’s polarizing, certainly, but like most of his movies, it’s a bitter pill when swallowed, but the afterglow is strong and pervasive. You’ve got to have a strong cinematic pallet to really dig your teeth into his work and allow yourself to savor the flavors he’s cooked up, and this time he’s served up his coldest meal yet. But it’s gorgeous.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
david j. moore