Nicolas Winding Refn occupies a unique place among active filmmakers but also a precarious one. Revered without being critic-proof, his films decidedly garner polarizing sentiments. As a whole his latest batch forms a loose trilogy lukewarm in its unmistakable predictability, while individually each film is phenomenal, posing a conundrum for anyone outside of his following of loyalists to introduce a Refn film to the uninitiated. His latest, The Neon Demon, is the natural progression of recent esthetic inclinations. If Drive was his most ready for mainstream consumption, its follow-up flirted too closely with experimentation. And The Neon Demon blends signature violence and customary compositions with a fully realized vision of that fine balance at last.
Jesse (Elle Fanning), by eventual indication, is the embodiment of an ideal sorely missing in her chosen profession. In having her hail from Georgia Refn conceives her as the all-American archetype of the girl-next-door variety. Until she moves to LA to pursue modeling against all odds, storming past a roomful of would-bes and aspirants with figures more in line with type than hers is, but I suspect this dissonance is neither intentional nor indicative of a flaw. More a casting preference more of which will pose other dilemmas for personal, objective reasons. Like Keanu Reeves in a brief, miscast role as the motel manager she’s staying in. He pervs on her and tries to turn her boyfriend on the jail bait next door all along proving a tonal distraction to contend with on top of the surrealist puzzle that is the film. That his sidekick is your run-of-the-mill hick is suggestion of Refn wanting his man all along results be damned considering Christina Hendricks also returns to Refn World except this time for one meager scene. The idea is that hers is a casting choice so acerbic in what it tells knowing her physique is a far cry from the gilded waifs she’s tasked with churning out as an agent.
The film mixes conventional storytelling with the cerebral and when viewed from afar the result is jarring despite an engaging presentation and the foreknowledge that Refn will eventually dish out the brutal and outrageous. At first Jesse is mostly a cipher, a non-factor, and mostly Refn’s primary attack on the body-image machine and authorities on glam. She moves up, gets signed to an agency and turns yet more heads as she accrues enemies and upgrades from a no-name photographer/boyfriend (Karl Glusman) to potential casting couch predators. The photo-shoots (the film begins with a grotesquely themed portfolio-building that shows her dead from a sliced throat) evolve to elaborate deification in one scene. Naturally this gets to her head as soon she succumbs to delusions and speaks in hypnagogic platitudes to none other than herself. As if self-soothing or possessed.
One episode puts the film in another gear when she swaps the motel for her friend Ruby’s (Jena Malone), who conceals from her that she is housesitting in Hollywood. Perhaps it is not, but the empty pool looks a great deal like a precursor from Sunset Boulevard and reeks of the same rank and decay of a former screen goddess. The film soars and never looks back but regrettably you’d wish more of its dreamscape sensibilities were featured to balance a weak script. “Being pretty pays,” at one point Jesse proclaims but is at once disappointed to discover the garish mansion she is now in is not personal property and there is an abstraction to the revelations that no one is shown at home, anchored to a permanent address. That underneath everyone is uprooted and unhinged pending their corresponding breakthrough. Or breaking point.
Beforehand cinephiles online wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to reveal the visual kinship between Suspiria and The Neon Demon. Usually this is expressed by transposing similar stills or God forbid gifs from the two films. Douche move, meme-feigning shit, in short. Fans of Giallo are in for disappointment however since the homages to Surpiria are few and easy to miss if not consciously reached for. It is not a like-for-like reporpusing of a classic nor is the influence blatant but legacies and visual triggers are such that they closely work in tandem. Which I suppose earns the film credibility as it succeeds as a sensory delight. Again, Refn employs a periodic shift between verbal exposition and pantomimed expression but he also devotes an inordinate amount of time with the movers and shakers of the scene when the intimate mise en scene proved plenty effective on its own.