By this point, nobody should go into a film by Nicolas Winding Refn expecting a happy-go-lucky romp or a feel-good comedy. His view is one of bleak despair underneath the sheen and glamour of a surface existence. Drive had a hell of a soundtrack and a good action movie narrative but it had a definite air of doom around it; similarly, Only God Forgives added gut-wrenching nihilism to a straight-forward revenge plot.
For his latest, The Neon Demon, Refn veers into the territory of people like David Lynch with his story of how beauty, and the want for beauty, corrupts even the most innocent. Oh, and it’s incredibly disturbing, in case you wondered.
The Neon Demon famously received a round of boos when it premiered at Cannes earlier this year, and Refn seems to steer into those kinds of skids rather than attempt to make something more populist. The Cannes crowd can be notoriously testy for whatever reason. But watching it, it’s easy to see why it might elicit such a reaction; it’s sparse with narrative, blatant with its symbolism, over-the-top with its more salacious moments, and ultimately makes everybody feel pretty bad, especially those of us who live in Los Angeles, which has been Refn’s muse more than once already. The city, and the people in it, will eat you alive if you aren’t careful.
The movie stars Elle Fanning as Jesse, a 16-year-old girl from Georgia who’s come to LA to make it in the modeling world. She has that something that everybody seems to gravitate toward, and indeed everyone she meets looks at her like a jungle tiger eyeing its next meal. Her doe-eyed expression is no mistake. Jesse is told by a top modeling agency exec (Christina Hendricks) that she’s going to be signed immediately, but she’ll have to pretend she’s 19…something which makes the predatory angle of the other characters all the more unsettling.
Jesse is quiet, polite, reserved, and above all innocent. She knows that the only thing she has going for her is that she’s pretty and is trying to make something out of that. She quickly meets a makeup artist (Jena Malone) who very clearly has ulterior motives to just being her friend. She introduces Jesse to two other models (Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote) who are immediately jealous of Jesse, for her youth and her natural beauty. Jesse also stays at a seedy motel run by Keanu Reeves who has open contempt for people who come to LA to follow their dreams. She later gets a modeling gig with a top photographer (Desmond Harrington) who does more than is proper to make the photos look good, and a fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola) who utters the film’s tagline “beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”
Just as with his previous movies, Refn keeps the focus almost entirely on the faces of his actors and allows reaction shots to linger for an uncomfortable amount of time. Fanning’s face is able to captivate both the characters on screen and the camera’s lens, and–I think deliberately–Refn uses the gaze to make us feel just as skeevy as we feel the other characters are. It’s not lurid looks at the young actress, but they’re certainly lusty. I also think it’s deliberate to show that the gaze that’s more predatory, more harmful is the gaze of other women, not of the men, who are mostly portrayed as base individuals. The women, on the other had, recognize the beauty as something far more ineffable and therefore much more valuable. Jesse has “it” and they don’t and they want it.
For a good portion of the running time, you think the movie might just be creepy and not incredibly disturbing, but the final act takes a hard left turn into depravity and it might lose some viewers. If you can stick with the dark fairy tale (very dark) theme and the idea that “the neon demon,” the god of your own desires, is behind everything, you may be able to look beyond the admittedly lengthy aberrant scenes to what the movie really has to say about beauty–it’s a killer.
The Neon Demon is out Friday, June 24. Watch if you have the stomach.
4 out of 5 really shiny and gross burritos
Image: Broad Green Pictures