There are a lot of movies about the predatory nature of Los Angeles, and the almost cannibalistic ugliness behind the glamour. But with The Neon Demon, Nicholas Winding Refn illustrates that concept in a breathtaking new way.
The last movie Refn directed was 2013's Only God Forgives, a kinetic, colorful bloodbath starring Ryan Gosling. Before that, he did Drive, also with Ryan Gosling.
But with The Neon Demon, Refn uses his unique visual style to tell a different kind of movie. It's haunting, haute couture horror. And it's splitting audiences - some people love it, and some hate it. What are the characteristics of this movie that make it such a conversation piece?
It's an Art Film About Models
The movie is about a very young girl who has just moved to Los Angeles to try to be a model. While there are hundreds of girls just like her in the city, people notice that she's different. She has that extra, almost divine beauty that people are naturally attracted to. Jesse knows this and wants to capitalize on it.
While this could be a trashy melodrama, Refn turns it into the opposite. It's very refined... and very sharp.
It's a Horror Film About Models. Kind of.
As Jesse slowly gets to know people in L.A., she is swept up into the model culture, complete with the destructive self-concepts of the women. She sees their obsession over their looks, the terror of their career ending when they turn 21, and the ravenous jealousy of other people who might be more successful than them.
As Jesse fits into the glamorous life, she begins having weird visions and dreams. And the people around her start acting weirder, too. The lines of reality blur, and you're not sure if you're watching a real movie, or a creepy vision of insane women. I mean, did that one character really have sex with that corpse?
The Performances are Great.
Elle Fanning stars as Jesse. Fanning hasn't made a lot of movies; if people recognize her, it's probably as Princess Aurora in Maleficent. Jena Malone plays Jesse's friend Ruby. Malone is known for Sucker Punch and The Hunger Games movies. But anyone that sees this movie will have a completely new image of her. And I have to say, even though Keanu Reeves has a small role, he does awesome as the dickhead sleazeball that runs Jesse's apartment building.
It's Visually Stunning.
This movie feels like a Bret Easton Ellis novel filmed by David Lynch. It is graceful and hip, beautifully defined. Everybody moves in a slow, deliberate manner, which also slowly builds suspense, but in a way that you hardly notice it. Combine the slow pace with the visual brilliance and the pulsing, dreamy soundtrack, and you become hypnotized. The images in the film get stranger and stranger; you sit there and absorb it through your brain and into some remote emotional core of yourself.
The Subtext is Fascinating.
One thing that makes this film different from Refn's previous work is that there are almost no men. This is a woman's film (the screenplay was co-written by Refn and two women). The men that are in the film are obvious metaphors for the basic functions of males in a woman's life.
Since it's about female models, it plays into all the dark insecurities that these women have. This is a world where plastic surgery is not controversial, it's merely considered "good grooming". If someone tells you that your face doesn't match your voice, then you change your face. And as one fashion designer says, "beauty is the highest form of currency". So what happens when ladies who are literally re-sculpting their bodies to make money find a girl who naturally is richer than all of them?
The title is never really explained. It's obviously not referring to your normal horror movie demons. There are several things, or people, or places, that could be considered the Neon Demon. It's up to you to decide what the demon is... and what it's trying to possess.
If you're already a fan of Nicholas Winding Refn, you know what he's like. You can appreciate this evolution in his vision. If you aren't sure if you like him, or if you've never heard of him, you are in for a new experience. You may find the movie to be a stunning and exquisite art-thriller, or you may think it's just weird and boring.
Here is the mesmerizing trailer: