The Neon Demon, 2016.
Directed Nicolas Winding Refn.
Starring Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Desmond Harrington, Christina Hendricks and Keanu Reeves.
After the death of her parents, Jesse moves to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a model, with her youth and beauty unleashing intense dark feelings of jealousy and fascination.
For today’s edition of October Horrors, we take a dive into a hotbed of the truly strange and macabre; the fashion world. As, without question, the world’s foremost fashion expert, I can imagine the being a model in the fashion world can be a highly competitive and vicious industry as everyone does whatever they can to get that extra edge for when they take to the catwalk. It’s this vicious cut-throat arena that is placed under the stylish and bewildering gaze of Nicolas Winding Refn in his visually captivating psychological horror The Neon Demon.
Nicolas Winding Refn strikes me as a director who has never really been interested in making films with dense plots, heavily developed characters or heavy amounts of dialogue, with his last few films, this one included, opting for a rather less is more approach when it comes to storytelling. The Neon Demon does have something resembling a story, but it is so thin as to be transparent with it seemingly relegated to the background much of the runtime.
This rather empty narrative is compounded by the film’s vacuous and thinly written cast of characters who spend much of their screen time trading verbal backhands about each other’s appearances, regaling us with very detailed descriptions of plastic surgery or regularly questioning just how protagonist Jesse can look so naturally beautiful. While the plot is rather thin in a narrative sense, this is mainly because Refn appears much more interested in taking a more overtly visual approach to his story. And it is in the visual department where The Neon Demon truly excels with Refn massaging our eyes with some of the most beautiful visuals I’ve ever seen in a horror film.
The film is littered with shots that are like carefully crafted art pieces, whether they be the dark neon-soaked nightclubs or the harsh bright lights of a photography studio in which our characters are clad in increasingly strange and creatively constructed outfits. Refn also seems to be following the likes of fellow horror director Dario Argento in the way that he uses the colour red in one particular scene to masterful effect, creating an almost hellish atmosphere that is both nightmarish while still gorgeous to look at.
The staging of the scenes is rather innovative, with the actors/models in the film’s various photo shoot/fashion show scenes being positioned, lit and shot in a manner as to make them appear almost mannequin-like giving these sequences a very strange and appropriately artificial look. If I’m honest though, and apologies if I sound like a simpleton, but more than anything, I just really love Refn’s heavy use of neon lighting. It just looks so damn cool.
I should warn viewers with epilepsy that The Neon Demon features a fair amount of strobe effects throughout which could cause some issues. So please be careful if you decide to give this one a watch.
I should talk about the performances from the films cast, but given the rather thin script, their work is honestly rather difficult to critique. Many of the performances seem to consist of the cast looking at each other with either veiled contempt, jealousy and/or lust. They all do a decent job with what they have, but it’s just that they don’t have a lot to work with.
Elle Fanning as protagonist Jessie appears to spend much of her performance following the path trod by Refn’s previous star Ryan Gosling, in that she says very little and spends much of her screen time being enigmatic but with an added subtle streak of growing narcissism which, to her credit, she pulls off well.
Jena Malone deserves most of the praise for her performance as Ruby, a make-up artist who develops a growing interest in Jessie, her growing attraction being portrayed through very subtle gestures and looks until she can barely contain herself. Malone also deserves credits for her unwavering commitment to a role that requires her to undertake increasingly bizarre actions, such as one particular grotesque highlight that features the actress engaging in what can be described as a failed attempt to make necrophilia seem erotic.
While The Neon Demon appears to act as a sly commentary on the cutthroat competitiveness of the fashion world (at least in my view) it is first and foremost a horror film. In handling his horror elements, Refn takes an approach that is conveyed through the hypnotic dream-like atmosphere, with many of its key moments often having a highly surreal bent to them, with it reaching its apex in an ending in which things literally become bloody bizarre and more than a little bit gross.
Although, if you’re not too keen on the more psychological surreal stuff, Refn has plenty of traditional horror elements for you to enjoy, such as a decent old school slasher style chase through a mansion by maniacs that gives us a nice bit of action in an otherwise slow-burning film, as well as handful of moments in which Fanning is harassed by various unpleasant characters and a tiger.
For my money though, the film’s scariest moment is such because of its simplicity. A sequence in which Fanning is menaced by a sinister Keanu Reeves as he holds a knife above her mouth, his cold commands ‘wider’ only serving to make you wince and cringe as you hope for this torturous ordeal to end, while dread fills you about just how exactly it will end.
The Neon Demon is definitely a film that is going to split the room. Viewers are likely to be divided on whether it a visually stunning commentary of the brutal nature of the fashion industry or as a shallow pretentious and empty film that hides its lack of substance and subtlety behind its pretty visuals. For me, I was honestly surprised by how much I enjoyed The Neon Demon, finding it to be a beautifully realised visual experience that, despite its narrative emptiness, cast a bizarre hypnotic spell that I just couldn’t peel my eyes away from. Check it out if you’re curious.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★