Cinematic Releases: The Neon Demon - Reviewed

Andrew reviews the long awaited new film from Nicolas Winding Refn.

After Nicolas Winding Refn won the Best Director award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival for his one and only Hollywood effort to date, Drive, he achieved both mainstream success, formed a newfound legion of fans and solidified his status in the cinema world as a director to keep a close eye on.  Instead of enjoying the pleasures of box office prizes in Tinseltown by directing more accessible fare, the Danish provocateur chose to deliberately alienate virtually all of those fans with his willfully inaccessible and morally mercurial Only God Forgives, a film which all but evenly split the film community down the middle.  For those hoping he would go back to more user friendly fare with his next project, The Neon Demon, without spoiling anything I can only say that he's continued with his uncompromising artistic impetus set forth in his last film and seems poised to divide audiences even further than before.  Known from the trailers and poster as his first female led and driven picture, The Neon Demon finds the auteur at a strange middle ground of the glitzy appeal of Drive and the perversely provocative psychosexuality and extreme ultraviolence of Only God Forgives.  In other words, The Neon Demon achieves that rare feat of being at once appealing and almost totally appalling, treading a tightrope walk between glorious eye candy and deeply disturbing transgression the likes of which not even die-hard Refn fans will be prepared for.

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During her first photoshoot she finds herself stirring the jealousies of competing models Ruby (Jena Malone as you've never seen her and hopefully never will again), Sarah (Abbey Lee from Mad Max: Fury Road) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote).  Meanwhile she's torn between her goody two-shoes boyfriend Dean (Karl Glusman from Gaspar Noe's Love), a sleazy hotel manager (an underutilized Keanu Reeves) and a pretentious fashion designer played by Allesandro Nivola.  

Returning to 2.35:1 widescreen, Refn and cinematographer Natasha Braier have transformed the Los Angeles modeling industry into a neon fluorescent urban wonderland with the aspiring young model Jesse (Elle Fanning) as it's unlucky Alice.  On the surface it all seems like a glorious but dangerous netherworld where beauty and horror are at once inseparable and eternally locked in mortal combat.  Reportedly certain sequences were shot at 60 frames per second in the rarely used 50mm, creating a hypnotic slow motion effect depicting glitter falling on Jesse's face.  Aiding the glistening and at times stroboscopic images of course is Cliff Martinez's pulsating electronic score which sounds like a technological reworking of the soundtrack to Suspiria.  Performances across the board are strong and go distances rarely demanded of modern actresses though the real star of this picture is the director who has now for the third time (the other two being Bleeder and Fear X) turned his own initials into a logo for the opening credits.  From the get go, The Neon Demon is obviously an ego driven work but Refn's images are so insatiable even as they reach into the depths of Hell that you almost want to root for his exercise in arrogance.

Those unacquainted with Refn's work as well as those who've had the pleasures of Bronson and Drive are in for a real shock this time around and though the deliberately slow pacing and intentional pauses in between lines of dialogue will be trying for some, I found myself hypnotically entranced by the painterly yet truly evil world on display here.  Like Only God Forgives, the film is peppered with moments of pure abstraction which are left open to interpretation and there's a clincher that just pushes the envelope slightly enough that it gets under the viewer's skin without being bombastic.  As a Refn film I'm not sure yet where to rank it among his other previous works but as an exercise in truly, deeply disturbing modern horror The Neon Demon is a masterpiece that will in some form or another elicit a strong reaction from you.  

While the influences of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Gaspar Noe are indeed felt all throughout The Neon Demon, one worth mentioning is Roman Polanski and his film Rosemary's Baby.  Not that there's any kind of demonic presence in the film, although that's open to debate, but just in the manner in which it chronicles the first person perspective of one woman's doomed journey scene after scene deep into an abyss of evil.  There's a loose thread involving a cougar which breaks into Jesse's apartment early in the film and as her adversaries begin to sharpen their claws, Refn's camera can't help but pass by stuffed cheetahs and lions on display, as though the seemingly innocent Jesse has become a gazelle being relentlessly hunted down by a pack of hungry predators.  By the end credits, Refn's Los Angeles modeling scene and it's inhabitants have been transformed from the idyllic and classy stiletto and black dressed fashion world into a no man's land of wild animals where the laws of nature dictate that only the fittest will survive.

- Andrew Kotwicki