Dripping with style, Nicolas Winding Refn’s neon clad monster spits in the face of beauty like a venomous snake. Likewise, it has teeth that sink so far into the skin, it may be impossible to pry out. Watching The Neon Demon feels as if the humble viewer is being force fed different psychotics and hallucinogens. It’s terribly addicting stuff.
Pulled off with a level of polish and daring that most studios and directors would leave untouched. Boundaries are crossed in the seedy world of fashion. Let’s just say, watching it unfold is all part of the fun. Doey eyed Jesse (Elle Fanning) helms this dark fairy tale, entering the alien city of ‘Los Angeles’ for a jab at a fashion gig. Along the way, she comes across the riveting Ruby (Jena Malone) a dark, sexy makeup artist. Two evil stepsisters in Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote) as well as shady hotel sucker Hank (Keanu Reeves) who has a penchant for peeping.
The first act is a mixture of warning signs and glamour. Refn shows Los Angeles in a glorious light through city lit skyscapes and driving beats akin to his previous movie Drive. Unbeknownst to Jesse, high on the energy of night, demons wander the streets. They come in forms… Friends, shirts and teeth. Each ready to pounce upon the little Doe lest she turn her back. She will. She won’t. Jesse’s babyface vulnerability meshes well with the adult city.
Fortunately, the women in this flick aren’t of the stupid variety. Refn relegates the men to background noise without setting off the gender battle fuse. Jesse herself gets blown away by every light and stunning goddess but she’s sensible enough to fight on her own terms and fawn when necessary. Even Ruby, Sarah and Gigi plan well. Plan often. As enemies or antiheroes, they still show their primitive skin, acting on jealousy. Loneliness. Sadness. Struggling as they turn into older models, making way for a shiny and new startlet. Ruby is the draw here. She dabbles in dark stuff by night, painting bright stuff by day. Her models run the show… but she is shafted. It’s true, who appreciates the artist? You have the art already, don’t you. Don’t you? Though she’s not totally vindictive, her streak is over. Making her downfall a truly sad affair. Gigi and Sarah, though, are almost irredeemable. Characters who thrive on fuck it’s and fuck yeahs. As the movie says ‘True beauty is the highest currency we have’ and you betcha they’ll try to steal some like a darker, twisted Hi MCdunnough. Hank is barely a fly on the wall but his impact is that of a shockwave. Our old Neo plays creepy without skipping a beat. No mean feat, since his face alone could make a down dog grin. Unmentioned guy Dean (Karl Glusman) is pretty throwaway but he does provide a more human distraction from devil girls and beauty queens.
The story is a basic hum, reminiscent of Black Swan with less grace and a better pallette. Blacks and Whites give way to shimmering blues and dangerous reds. Pinks and Greens become a rainbow dream. The Neon Demon is like drinking liquid colour. Even when it turns nasty, that colour is still a welcome trickle of comfort. An artist’s wet dream come to fruition.
The real joy of The Neon Demon is staring at the eye candy visuals and gorgeous cinematography, basking in the glorious beats of a grand soundtrack and above all… Analysing an open ended, future cult classic which was booed at Cannes. Mostly savaged for necrophilia and a bad attitude. Dear everyone, this film will try to alienate you. If it doesn’t, you’ll be grabbing a bucket during the stomach churning final act. Blood. Guts. Hints at rape. Obsession. Portrayals of women. Snapshots of men. Money is power and we are but animals. Subtle meanings. Ambiguity. It’s all wrapt nicely, bowed tight, to send you in an uproar. Refn delights in this shit. He’s a controversial maverick. And if you get wound up or offended, he has done a terrific job in manipulation through these hard to swallow subjects. It’s polarising. A polar bear in a polar ice storm. But the film is damn effective. We’re treated to fine dialogue exchanges bathed in tension - inner struggle and outer struggle simmering under the skin or onto those porcelain faces.
The first act isn’t a yawn fest but is the very best parts of sensory overload. Blaring. Feverish lights. Characters we’d like to think we know, though we don’t and possibly never truly will. However, every motivation is clear somehow which helps to connect bonds. It’s especially important for Ruby, Sarah and Gigi when grabbing the pitchforks would be all too easy. One is a struggling, unloved loner. Two are past their prime, in danger of losing jobs to an underage and inexperienced dizzy eyed showgirl. That’s no way to die. But it is one that unfortunately mimics our own society from time to time. The second act gets gradually more cultish and cruel with Sarah and Gigi taking jabs at the new girl whilst Jesse discovers her potential to be dangerous. Dean changes his stance on the pretty duo. Our protagonist shifts her feet. Ruby is a little more sad. Hank is a little more slimy.
As for the final act, if balls to the wall insanity is your bag, you’ll be right at home here.
Refn’s sickly, sweet, sugar, stab at fashion may be a slow burn for starters. But as it escalates to totally bonkers, proceedings will improve for many. The flick echoes polished grindhouse. Made to jolt, shock, offend, split, kick and spit in the face of the modern audience. Demon holds up an ugly mirror to the world. With sharp jaws. It bites. Social commentary for the pretty. It may not be horrific in the jump scare sense. However, The Neon Demon is definitely a skin crawler, with or without a bathtub of blood.