By Jack Holmes
The fashion world has never looked so sickly beautiful before. Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn has returned to the peak of film making that he’d achieved with 2011’s cult hit Drive and The Neon Demon is a return to form for the director who many fans were beginning to feel had lost his way after 2013’s Only God Forgives offered Refn’s surface level stun, yet very little else.
The Neon Demon largely addresses these flaws and gives us a narrative that’s by no means a plot destined to become a cinema classic, but that is capable of holding an audience while Refn’s real skill as a cinematographer really draws in the viewer.
The almost fable-like tale follows sixteen year old Jesse (Elle Fanning) who moves to LA to pursue a modelling career. Signed immediately to a major label, the veteran models of the industry sense their “sell by date” looming, as one describes it, and are eventually pushed to commit a serious of gore-splashed crimes of the mind and body. They’re actions that are best seen to be enjoyed for what they are, as Refn pushes the shock factor to eleven, ramping up from a particular scene in an agency bathroom, right through to the almost sickening final scene of the movie. It feels like watching a modern Brothers Grimm fairy-tale, complete with witches, wolves, oblivious sheep and some shockingly graphic content. If you’re squeamish when it comes to movies, this might not be the one for you.
However, if glossy, seemingly scientifically calculated shot after shot is your thing, you’ve come to the right place. Hit pause at just about any point in The Neon Demon and you’ll have a postcard-worthy image. Outdoor scenes are given a peaceful tranquility though beige colour palettes, but it’s when the darkness sets in that Refn really sets himself apart from any other directors out there. The neon sign signifiers that became synonymous with Drive return here but Refn proves that he’s using more than a single gimmick to mould a film’s lighting to his purpose. One particular catwalk scene is so expertly lit he manages to light Elle Fanning’s face to slightly resemble a skull with no computer effects to be seen. Lighting might not sound like a real draw for a film, but you haven’t seen lighting like this in a film for a long time.The film establishes itself as a re-watchable classic through these cinematic techniques that will leave you wanting to lick the screen before reeling as Refn’s lust for gore takes hold.
Scenes, dialogue, characters and costume are also laced with so much metaphor you’ll find yourself picking it apart hours after the credits have rolled. A nice example of the development Refn demonstrates, adding new layers to his usual surface-focused formula.
As always, Cliff Martinez does an amazing job composing the “sparse electronic score” as he describes it. Having worked with Refn on the soundtrack for Drive previously and creating what is considered a near perfect soundtrack that was even covered by other artists on a Radio One special, The Neon Demon seems set to accomplish a similar feat.
At its heart, The Neon Demon is a story of lost innocence, jealousy and the consumption of youth, but, where the plot occasionally fails to captivate the audience, you can rely on the slick visuals to keep you rooted to your seat.