The Neon Demon (2016 review)
Writers: Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws, Polly Stenham
Cast: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee
Certificate: 18 Running Time: 1hr 58 Mins
“Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”
I’m still falling perilously into the abyss staring helplessly up at The Neon Demon. It’s a vicious beast that sent me hurtling over the edge of sanity. Refn has sent shudders down the spine with the monstrous depravity flowing through the glossy veins of his latest creation. The Dane has given birth to the darkest of fairy-tales capturing the alluring essence of beauty and modern society’s compulsive, disturbing obsession with it. How far will some go to attain the elusive elixir? This is a vicious attack at the vanity ingrained in the moral fabric of contemporary culture. A world in which beauty is worshiped as currency of worth. Refn’s transgression into horror is absurd, shocking and one of the most memorable genre exercises in some time.
Elle Fanning’s metamorphic turn as Jesse is spellbinding, she’s superb as the vulnerable youth consumed by an overpowering shot of narcissism. The rookie wannabe model arrives in LA like flocks of other girls desperate to land a modelling contract. It’s instantly visible that she’s going to make the grade. Her meeting with agent (Christina Hendricks) sets the tone, she just has ‘it’ while others don’t. No one is even sure of what ‘it’ actually is, it’s intangible, almost ephemeral in nature and makes others burn with envy and melt into insignificance. She stands out from the crowd and while she seemingly befriends make-up artist, Ruby (Jena Malone), the same can’t be said of fellow models: Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee) who quickly deem her to be competition ‘Who wants sour milk when you can get fresh meat?’
“People see you, they notice. Do you know how lucky you are? I’m a ghost.”
From the outset, Jesse shines as a beacon of vital purity and youth. The sixteen year old (pretending to be nineteen, a highly ironic detail) is described as being ‘nothing fake, nothing false. A diamond in a sea of glass’. Ruby towards her offering a helping hand and offer of support. Gigi is threatened by her natural glow representing the re-invented, artificial face of manufactured good-looks deeming plastic surgery to be ‘good grooming’. While Sarah is down on her luck following a disastrous audition where Jesse outguns her. She’s perhaps the most desperate to glean what Jesse has ‘what’s it feel like? To walk into a room, and it’s like in the middle of winter. You’re the sun.’ Refn’s created avatars of his female protagonists, they represent an ideology and characterise different attitudes. The male characters take a back seat, ironically Jesse’s boyfriend, Dean, who is the moral conscience in the film is a juxtaposition in himself as he knowingly makes advances towards a minor.
As the gears begin to shift, Jesse becomes increasingly narcissistic as her ego overcomes her ‘I know what I look like. Women would kill to look like this’. She’s consumed and there’s a moment during a stunningly produced, ultra-stylish neon fashion show when she becomes engulfed by bright lights and her transformation into the titular ‘demon’ is complete. The arrival of danger is signified by wild tiger that breaks into Jesse’s motel room (owned by the creepy Keanu Reeves). The sudden plunge into ‘shock’ territory is jaw-dropping and is the genesis of a riveting journey into madness.There’s no two ways about it, the hotly debated morgue scene went too far. While Ruby’s carnal desire is important to the narrative, pushing it as far as necrophilia is downright unnecessary.
The nods to Argento’s Suspiria pulse through every frame along with other influences such as Aronofsky’s Black Swan and Robson’s Valley of the Dolls.There is a strong case to be debated that Refn is a victim of the society he sets out to critique, a man obsessed with lavish style over true substance. Despite all this, there’s an unquestionable Refn stamp on the Demon that could only be from his wild imagination. He’s about as unique as they come.
“True beauty is the highest currency we have. Without it, she would be nothing.”
A deluge of violence erupts in the climax where chaos ensues and the intense wave of savagery begins. It’s foreshadowed from the very first frame where a deceased Jesse poses for the camera. The ‘devouring’ (no pun intended) of Jesse’s soul is grotesque and could be inspired by the 16th century Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Báthory who famously butchered hundreds of virgins and is said to have bathed in their blood to ingest their youthful beauty.
Refn is capable of crafting images that burn deep and linger in the mind. Natasha Braier’s sublime cinematography captures The Neon Demon’s in all her blazing glory with distorting and haunting visuals backed by Cliff Martinez’s pulsating score. A cult classic in the making.