Coming from the position of not knowing his earlier output, this take might be limited but better to have tried and failed, right? Nicolas Winding Refn occupies a unique place among active filmmakers, but also a precarious one. Revered without being critic-proof, his films decidedly garner polarizing sentiment. As a whole his later filmography forms a ‘visuals’ trilogy lukewarm in unmistakable predictability, while individually each film is a phenomenal stand-alone offering, posing a conundrum for anyone outside of his following of loyalists to introduce a Refn film to the uninitiated. His latest, The Neon Demon, is the natural progression of recent aesthetic inclinations. If Drive was his most ready-for-mainstream consumption, its follow-up flirted too closely with experimentation and too much Gosling (cast someone else, dude). The Neon Demon blends signature violence and customary compositions with a fully realized vision of that fine balance for now.
Jesse (Elle Fanning), by eventual indication, is the embodiment of an ideal sorely deficient among peers in her chosen profession. The “It” factor, one must presume. In having her hail from Georgia, Refn conceives her as the all-American archetype, the girl-next-door variety She descends on LA to pursue modeling against all odds, storming past a roomful of would-bes and aspirants with figures more in line with the type than her’s. One may suspect this dissonance is neither intentional nor indicative of a flaw but more a casting preference another instance of which will pose other dilemmas for personal reasons. I’m talking about Keanu Reeves in a brief, miscast role as the motel manager she’s staying in. He pervs on her as he tries to turn her boyfriend on to the jailbait next door. He shows a tonal distraction to contend with on top of the surrealist puzzle the film weaves. That his sidekick is your run-of-the-mill hick is a suggestion of Refn wanting his man all along, results be damned, considering Christina Hendricks also returns to Refn World except for one meager scene this time. The idea is that hers is a casting choice so acerbic in what it says knowing her physique is a far cry from the gilded waifs she’s tasked with churning out and evaluating as an agent.
The film mixes conventional storytelling with the cerebral and, when viewed from afar, the result is jarring despite an engaging presentation and the foreknowledge that Refn will eventually dish out the brutal and outrageous. At first Jesse is mostly a cipher, a non-factor, and Refn’s primary point of attack on the body-image machine and authorities on glam. She moves up, gets signed to an agency and turns yet more heads as she accrues enemies and upgrades from a no-name photographer/boyfriend (Karl Glusman) to potential casting couch predators. In turn, the photo-shoots evolve from grotesquely themed portfolio-building sessions featuring her in sliced throat make-up to elaborate deification by the hands of professionals in later scenes.
Naturally this gets to her head as she soon succumbs to delusions and speaks in hypnagogic platitudes to none other than herself, as if self-soothing or consumed by a spell. One episode puts the film in another gear arrives after the motel is swapped for her friend Ruby’s (Jena Malone), who conceals that she is in fact house-sitting in Hollywood and not in possession of a slice of its prestigious zip code. Perhaps it was not, but the empty pool looks a great deal like a precursor from Sunset Boulevard and reeks of the same rank and decay of another fictional has-been in denial of their decline. As if Ruby was a make-up artist who couldn’t hack it on the runway back in her day. The film soars and never looks back but regrettably you’d wish more of its dreamscape sensibilities were featured to balance a weak script. “Being pretty pays,” at one point Jesse proclaims but is at once disappointed to discover the garish mansion she is now in is not personal property and there is an abstraction to the revelation that no one is shown at home, anchored to a permanent address, as if underneath everyone is uprooted and unhinged pending their corresponding breakthrough. Or breaking point.
Beforehand cinephiles online wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to reveal the visual kinship between Suspiria and The Neon Demon (it’s a stretch), usually expressed in similar stills transposed or, God forbid, gifs from the two films. Luckily most of them moved on to hopefully form their jerk circle elsewhere, and I suspect that is around Refn’s next project.Fans of Giallo however are in for disappointment since the homages to Surpiria are few and easy to miss if not consciously looked for. It is not a like-for-like reporpusing of a classic nor is the influence blatant but legacies and visual triggers are such that they closely work in tandem. Which I suppose earns the film credibility as it succeeds as a sensory delight.It is more that Refn employs a periodic shift between verbal exposition and pantomimed expression than anything else as he also devotes an inordinate amount of time with the movers and shakers of the LA fashion scene when the intimate mise en scene proved plenty effective on its own.