Brilliance can still have flaws, make no mistake about it but that should take away from our ability to bask in it. In many ways The Neon Demon is arguably writer/director Nicholas Winding Refn’s premiere efforts as it washes us in a visual tapestry that is equal parts seductive and hollow but at the same time also shows cracks in the amazing veneer that Refn puts in front of audiences each time out.
It’s the City of Angels and when aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning) finally moves to Los Angeles to pursue her dreams she finds herself drawn into a group of women who are intent on devouring her very youth and vitality, and these women will do anything to get what she possesses.
While it is easily a visual masterpiece, The Neon Demon eschews any sort of standard narrative as it floats around its characters mediating on the hollow nature of beauty with a style overload which is just as spectacular as it is overwhelming but it also highlights Refn’s weaknesses as his stunning style shows how much he leans on some of the beauty that came before him.
Granted I will admit this was undoubtedly by design, but The Neon Demon is a piece of satire that quite literally eats itself. Here he peaks at giving us the epitome of esthetic trash; it’s beautiful, it’s disgusting and it has no genuine self worth…and he loves shoves that in our face at every possible turn. We should look away, but we live in a world where he knows that just won’t happen. He attacks the corporate nature of beauty and makes it as ugly as he possibly can; making the concept of genuine natural beauty something that is unbelievably foreign in this world where the only currency that you have is the glow in your face and the sparkle in your eyes. He eviscerates the stunning visuals and electric score by Cliff Martinez as it unfolds in front of us all, we could watch this movie without any actual dialogue and it may have even been the better for it. While his necessity to lean on his visual inspirations and influences is becoming a little obvious it doesn’t take away how intellectually engaged we are by what is happening on the screen. It’s not your standard movie, its high concept performance art and it wants you to embrace the depravity of it all, no matter if you feel like you need a shower after the fact or not, and in spite of its lack of story it is anchored by one hell of a performance.
Elle Fanning is a goddamn revelation here as she commands the screen at every single turn. She isn’t “The Neon Demon” but she brings it out in every single person that crosses her path on the ugly streets of Hollywood. These people are drawn to her like a moth to a flame, and she spends the entire movie thinking that she is the flame when in reality; she is the moth who ultimately gets burned by her own unfathomable beauty. Sadly there really aren’t any other characters in the movie that get any moments that matter. Jena Malone is fine as the one who befriends her on her arrival into town while Keanu Reeves gets to chew the scenery playing the manager of the sleazy motel that Fanning’s character is staying at and Alessandro Nivola gets to bring an aloof sense of creepy to his fashion designer who is shunning all of his old favorite models in favor of this new gem on the scene. When she is on screen, Fanning and Refn make sure that she commands every second of our attention, and when she isn’t…honestly who cares?
To put it simply, The Neon Demon is an experience. You might love it (as we did) or you might hate it but Nicolas Winding Refn at least has the cinematic chutzpah to challenge audiences and ensure that no matter what he puts on the screen, we’ll never be bored with it.