Running an advertisement for a series of films that heavily influenced Nicolas Winding Refn’s directorial style immediately prior to the screening of The Neon Demon could be seen as either an enlightening glimpse into the mind of the film’s director, or a sort of ill-advised, potential plot spoiler.
In truth, whilst very evidently shaping his thought processes for this latest venture, more than anything it provides an opportunity for appreciation; to nod knowingly at clear but well realised influences within Refn’s own stylistic approach. The Neon Demon, it must be said, holds up well under its own merits.
This sinister tale is Winding Refn’s twist on a familiar theme; that of a young innocent heading to the big smoke to seek her fame and fortune. The young innocent in this case is she with the God-given beauty, Jesse (Elle Fanning), a girl of subdued yet focused ambition to be a top model.
Her seductive natural beauty induces dollar signs in the eyes of some, but green-eyed envy in those of others.
Within the truly vacuous fashion industry, beauty, we are told, is everything.
“Is that your real nose? God, life is so unfair…” pipes up one picture perfect model; a girl whose personal plastic surgeon has dubbed her ‘the bionic woman’ for obvious reasons. She’s certainly pleasing on the eye, but that can’t curb her and her colleagues’ underhand bitchy sniping at the new girl in town, something that has the potential to escalate out of all control.
As each day unfolds and as Jesse is quickly drawn into, and begins to embrace, a world shorn of its moral boundaries and whose inhabitants fawn relentlessly over her ‘talents,’ her appreciation of her own self-worth and her awareness of others’ jealousy steadily grows. This is a girl under whose cute exterior there lies an ingrained belief that she is in possession of a gift. It’s a gift that she’s been informed is dangerous. But is it dangerous for her or dangerous for others?
Elle Fanning is excellent as Jesse, Keanu Reeves puts in a convincing if limited turn as the soulless owner of the sort of motel that Anthony Perkins might think twice about staying at, whilst Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee (Gigi and Sarah, respectively), are a pair of sharp and conniving fashion models whose places at the top table seem to have been somewhat usurped by this new imposter and flavour of the month.
It’s perhaps however Jena Malone, playing make-up artist, Ruby, who convinces most though, with an edgy role exploring the macabre and truly ‘forbidden’ sides of humanity. Her self-appointed role as friend, guide, and general lookout for Jesse’s well being is admirable on the surface, but in the morally bankrupt, artificial construct that is the fashion industry, good intentions are probably not always what they may seem.
Visually stunning, minimal in its direction, underpinned by dark sexual tension, and awash throughout with influence from some of the very best of cult horror, science-fiction and suspenseful film-making, Nicolas Winding Refn has outdone himself with this one.
Cliff Martinez’ throbbing, power-packed analog synth-heavy soundtrack provides a sonic backdrop that truly drives home Winding Refn’s vision, right through to the film’s lurid and somewhat unexpected conclusion.
As Picturehouse Cinemas’ upcoming short season of films suggests: Think Carrie, think Mulholland Drive, think Videodrome, think Under The Skin, amongst others…
The Neon Demon may well owe a lot to its predecessors, yet it still manages to sit assuredly amongst such revered company.