Director Nicolas Winding Refn is back with his latest, The Neon Demon. Will this film connect with audiences or leave them scratching their heads?
Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a young model trying to break into the world of high fashion in Los Angeles. Her beauty and innocence are recognized and coveted by all who meet her. She immediately secures representation and begins booking jobs. On one job, she meets makeup artist, Ruby (Jena Malone), who takes Jesse to a party where she is introduced to Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), who are both fellow models. Immediately, Gigi and Sarah get catty with Jesse and when they later lose jobs to her, they grow vengeful. Meanwhile, Jesse has dreams that are strangely prophetic. She also fears for her safety at the fleabag motel in which she’s staying that is run by Hank (Keanu Reeves). Will Jesse grow into the star everyone thinks she is or will the fashion world eat her alive?
Let’s get this out of the way straight at the top—Neon Demon is a fucked up film. It is most definitely not for everyone. There’s a ton of symbolism, but there’s not much to the story. Without spoiling anything, Jesse comes to L.A. as an innocent ingénue and soon the world corrupts her. However, we never really learn anything about her. She has a line late in the film where she tells another character, “My mother called me dangerous.”—paraphrasing here, of course. My reaction to this line was, “Really? I didn’t get that from her.” The film is really more about Gigi, Sarah, and Ruby and how far they’ll go to get ahead, but the film’s protagonist is Jesse—or at least we spend the most time with her—so by the end of the film, you feel unfulfilled. Also, there are several moments—like Jesse’s dreams—that don’t seem to go anywhere. Refn does a good job creating this nightmare L.A., but there’s not a decent story to go with it. Also, in parts, it’s absolutely revolting.
As usual with Refn’s films, The Neon Demon is absolutely gorgeous. Refn is a fantastic visual artist, it’s just that this script isn’t that hot. The soundtrack, composed by regular Refn collaborator Cliff Martinez, is also great. It’s a synth-heavy score that evokes the feel of an eighties thriller. So, the atmosphere of this film is great.
The cast does a good job with what they’re given. Elle Fanning is a very good young actress and she plays both innocence and corruption very well. However, when everyone is behaving like Jesse is the most beautiful girl they’ve ever seen, I couldn’t totally buy into it. Fanning is definitely attractive, but I didn’t see her as a “classic beauty.” It reminded me of Snow White and the Huntsman where Charlize Theron—objectively one of the most beautiful women in the world—is worried about Kristen Stewart, who often looks like she’s constipated in films. It’s not exactly the same with Fanning and beauty is most certainly in the eye of the beholder, but in a film that is about a world that focuses on appearance, it stood out to me. Then again, maybe that was Refn’s point. The other three ladies do fine work here too with Malone having the strangest role of all, as one stomach-turning scene late in the film will show. And you’ll probably hate Keanu Reeves by the end of this one, just FYI.
Overall, The Neon Demon is visually striking, but ultimately, I didn’t care for the story. I felt there needed to be a little more character development with Jesse and less guesswork. I did like this better than Only God Forgives—it’s certainly more coherent—but it mainly succeeds based on its look and score more than anything else. It wasn’t my cup of tea, but it might suit some adventurous souls.