Nicolas Winding Refn seems to go out of his way to be a polarizing filmmaker. With titles as varied as Pusher, Bronson, Drive, and Only God Forgives, the guy has grown to specialize in titles that draw in audiences with titillating exploitations and seductive visuals, then push them away with an often alienating, ponderous aesthetic and graphically disturbing content. He’ll happily sleaze his way out of pretentious art house lovers’ favour and challenge gorehounds a little too deeply. By consequence, his films play for peculiar audiences somewhere in between trash-loving artistes and filth mongers with patience. There’s no such thing as a crowd-pleasing Refn picture and that’s pretty much the point. His latest effort The Neon Demon is technically a horror film, but hardly a conventional one. Sleazy, sexy, gory, surreal, thoughtful, dumb, slow, haunting, and hypnotic, it’s a flick that attempts many things and succeeds at most. Love it or loathe it, you’ll never forget the insane collection of images bombarding your optic nerves in this bizarre two hours.
Elle Fanning stars as a 16 year old fresh off the bus from a nowhere town. She’s struck out for Los Angeles in pursuit of modeling fame. We’re introduced to her being photographed as a bloody corpse to lay on some thick foreshadowing. Soon she’s signed on by a sleazy agent (Christina Hendricks,) gets a room at a dirtbag hotel run by a particularly scumbag-ish Keanu Reeves, and kicks off her career. Every photographer and fashion designer who meets Fanning is entranced by her beauty, while fellow models (embodied as Barbie doll backstabbers played by Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote) loathe her on sight. A make-up artist with a creepy smile (Jena Malone) takes a special interest in Fanning. But like everyone else in the world, that kindness quickly turns nefarious.
It would be easy to write this off as your typical ‘innocent naïf corrupted by La-La-Land tale.” Only, with it being a Refn joint, it’s told slowly through nightmarish neon images and a hypnotic score, plus a few pit stops into cannibalism and necrophilia.
It should be stated right off the bat that there’s no sense of reality or naturalism hidden in The Neon Demon. Instead, it plays more like a surrealist sensory experience with performances that are either deliberately exaggerated or delivered in a dream-like deadpan. Not a frame of the movie is anything less than beautiful. Even quiet shots of empty streets are framed though exaggerated shadows with slow creeping camera moves that draw dread out of every sequence.
The score by Cliff Martinez (who also provided the music for Refn’s Drive) pulses with a retro synth vibe that slithers under the skin. The music and images blur together to tell the story as much than any of the words spoken. It feels very much like an homage to the giallos and dark fairy tales of Dario Argento/Goblin like Suspiria or Deep Red. The only difference is that Refn feels very much in control of why audiences will giggle between the freak outs.
Because as much as The Neon Demon creeps out like a horror flick, it’s also rather hilarious. The mockery of the evils of the fashion world is so loud and needlessly nasty that you can’t help but giggle at how absurd things become. When the gore arrives, it’s artfully framed, clearly symbolic, and absolutely disgusting. Yet it’s often so extreme and over the top that it feels like the punchline to a long joke. While it’s entirely possible to view the film literally and enjoy the sleazy, sick, and hypnotic charms, it’s probably best to describe it as a dark comedy.
Refn’s crafted both a hysterically arch rendition of a land of psychotic fashionistas and a lunatic take on art house horror. It feels like he’s made a pure exploitation movie that just happens to be told in art house language. Strip away the aesthetics and cut it down to 70 minutes and this could have easily filled out grindhouse double features in the 70s. It would also have been beloved by pretentious critics for attempting any sort of social statement. But pile on the art house trimmings and those same eggheads will despise it for using a language they are used to taking seriously.
On a weird level, the movie feels like a prank that Refn is pulling on cinema snobs, particularly online armchair critics. Something to divide those who can appreciate this art trash romp for what it is and those who are upset that it’s not what they want it to be. The guy pulled a similar trick with the deliberately confounding and disturbing Only God Forgives, which felt like he was courting hate as much as love following his unexpected success with Drive. This is almost comes across as a film calculated to alienate those who despise Refn’s art/trash aesthetic as much as a means to court more genre fans into his weird little corner of the sandbox. The filmmaker is nothing if not self-aware, and it’s amusing to see him create work calculated to draw controversy amongst the small and strange world of internet film lovers.
The Neon Demon will certainly get people talking, one way or the other. It would be nice for Refn to return to the more frenetic pacing and character-driven work of The Pusher Trilogy, Bleeder, and even Bronson at some point, since they are easily his most satisfying features. For now, it’s fun to watch the guy provoke and laugh from the back of the theater as he irritates and elates his viewers in equal measure. Hopefully he’ll get over that impulse soon though. He’s more talented than that, and surely has a few more stories with actual content left in him.