This may came as a shock to those that know me but I am not very familiar with the rising Danish director, writer and self-proclaimed pornographer Nicolas Winding Refn. Like many, I first heard of Refn back in 2011 when he released Drive starring Ryan Gosling, which was a breakout hit here in the United States. Refn soon followed that up with 2013’s Only God Forgives which again starred Gosling in the lead. This follow up film was not that well received by audiences and it is still a very divisive one, which didn’t help Refn’s rising status in America being that most only knew him for Drive. Flash forward 3 years after Only God Forgives to 2016 and Refn released his latest film titled The Neon Demon.
At this point I’d still only knew Refn just as a director whom’s films I still had to watch and I knew I had to bump him up on my list the moment I saw one of the trailers for The Neon Demon. Trailers, more often or not, seem to oversell (especially with blockbuster films) or undersell the film in question, but I was hooked on The Neon Demon once seeing its red band trailer. It had all the hallmarks of indie / art house cinema that I enjoy: a sexually dark atmosphere, sinister undertones, amazing cinematography, crafty camerawork, excellent music and biting satirical elements. Needless to say, I was definitely sold.
The Neon Demon stars Elle Fanning (who, like in the early days of her older sister Dakota Fanning, is a quickly rising young Hollywood star), Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Christina Hendricks and Keanu Reeves. Fanning plays an aspiring model named Jesse that has recently moved to Los Angeles in order to chase her dream. Due to her radiant youth and beauty, Jesse quickly rises through the industry with relative ease and draws immense fascination and jealousy along the way. That’s about the gist of the film and it may not seem like much of a plot, but in watching The Neon Demon, one will quickly see how this film is a beautifully dark and disturbing experience.
I will start off by saying that I have seen this film twice within the span of a week. I am not a fan of seeing a film again so quickly after an initial viewing, but The Neon Demon was a more than worthy exception to this unspoken rule of mine. Although this film is in my wheelhouse of interests, as I’ve already made mention of at the start of this review, I had to watch it again immediately due to how beautiful it is. The colors are so lush, haunting and vibrant that they just stick with you long after a viewing. Detractors who are against films of this type can simply write it off by calling it a glorified music video, which I can neither confirm or deny, but given the film’s subject matter (a satirical take on the modeling industry) I am more than okay with Refn’s creative choices.
Without giving away too much of the film’s details, I enjoyed the character arc of Jesse as well as Fanning’s portrayal of Jesse. Throughout the course of the film, she meets a number of characters along the way who are more two-faced than one would believe them to be. Along with Fanning, Jena Malone was excellent in this film and the surprising complexity of her character took me off guard. Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee play two models who are in league with Fanning’s character and their relationship is an interesting one to say the least. Christina Hendricks and Keanu Reeves are the biggest names out of the film’s cast and have small but important roles. I will state briefly here as a lifelong fan of Keanu Reeves, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him portray such a repulsive and creepy scumbag of a character in his career like the one he portrays in this film. It was very effective and very bothersome in subtle but key moments in the film. It was some, “real Lolita shit”.
In the long run, Jesse’s youthful naivete ultimately determines her fate in the film and the journey along the way is a cinematic feast for the eyes. I love The Neon Demon and I will now be playing catch up in regards to Nicolas Winding Refn’s filmography. If you are a fan of dark, sexy, beautiful, twisted and satirical filmmaking with excellent music (Cliff Martinez killed this soundtrack), you need to watch The Neon Demon now.