Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Stars: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Alessandro Nivola, Desmond Harrington, Karl Glusman.
Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn is no stranger to controversy. He announced himself as a filmmaker to watch with his powerful and gritty Pusher trilogy, and his prison film Bronson, starring Tom Hardy, was a pile driver of a movie. The action thriller Drive, with Ryan Gosling, was embraced by a more mainstream audience, but since then his films seem to have become more obtuse, pretentious and enigmatic. His follow up to Drive, the graphically violent and impenetrable Bangkok set thriller Only God Forgives, divided and alienated audiences. His latest film The Neon Demon also divided audiences and critics at its premiere screening at Cannes.
The Neon Demon is a rather vicious look at the dark underbelly and the dog eat dog world of the superficial fashion industry and the way it devours young models. Here the catwalk almost becomes the setting for a horror movie. It is like Australia’s Next Top Model on steroids. Written by Refn and first time feature film writers Mary Laws and Polly Stedham the film deals with themes of youth, beauty, innocence and innocence lost, obsession, sex, exploitation and fetishism. The film was allegedly inspired by the real life exploits of Countess Elizabeth Bathory, a sixteenth century Hungarian serial killer who apparently killed hundreds of young women.
Hailing from a small town out east, sixteen year old aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning, from Maleficent, Trumbo, etc) arrives in decadent Los Angeles full of dreams. Jesse is taken under the wing of make-up artists Ruby (Jena Malone, from The Hunger Games, etc), who is her only real friend and introduces her to other models at parties. She quickly breaks into the modelling world and captures the attention of some of the famous agents and photographers in the business. She becomes a favourite of photographer Jack (Desmond Harrington), who shoots her in the nude.
But success comes with a price and her sudden rise earns the jealousy of some fellow models, particularly Gigi (Australian actress Bella Heathcote, from Neighbours, etc), who has had plenty of cosmetic surgery to enhance her youthful appearance, and Sarah (Australian actress Abbey Lee, from Ruben Guthrie, etc). But with her fame, Jesse also grows increasingly narcissistic. Towards the end the material takes a turn into the gory, and it all leads to a nasty and blood soaked finale full of cannibalism and necrophilia.
This is Refn’s first female centric film, and he has assembled a strong cast of young female actresses to flesh out the characters. Fanning is excellent in her difficult role, and she plays the part with conviction and maturity. In a difficult role as Ruby, the predatory lesbian make-up artist, Malone is also strong and delivers a brave performance that shows why she is one of the rising stars of her generation. The cast also features Alessandro Nivola as a gay fashion designer, Mad Men‘s Christina Hendricks as a powerful agent, and Keanu Reeves (channeling Nicolas Cage) in a small and bizarre role as the unpleasant manager of the seedy little hotel where Jesse stays when first arriving in LA.
Refn throws lots of ideas at the screen resulting in a film that feels disjointed and is almost incoherent with a non-linear narrative structure. There are fantasy dream sequences that smack of self indulgence and misogyny, and some provocative set pieces that may recall Paul Verhoeven’s trashy Showgirls. Refn practically fetishsizes over Fanning, often shooting her in seductive close-up.
The Neon Demon is a triumph of style over substance, but what style. Cinematographer Natasha Braier bathes the film in vibrant colours and striking neon lit visuals and the film has a gorgeous visual surface. Braier also uses the Los Angeles skyline as an impressive backdrop. Erin Benach has created some lavish costumes for the models to wear, and regular composer Cliff Martinez has provided a hypnotic and striking synthesizer driven electronic score.
The Neon Demon is certainly a striking cinematic visual and aural experience, but, as with a lot of superficial models themselves, there is a sense that this beauty is only skin deep. With the The Neon Demon Refn was trying to make a horror movie without the usual horror tropes, and the end result is a crazy film that will confound and disturb many. It is a confronting and polarising experience that is likely to divide audiences.