The Neon Demon

The director of Drive is back with a sick, stylish thriller that audiences will either love or despise.
Sarah Ward
Published on October 24, 2016


Bright lights, fame and the chance to become something special all beckon in The Neon Demon. For small-town teen and aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning), they're intoxicating — and to the others she meets in her quest for success, so is her innocence and youth. Still, there's a reason that, when Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn first introduces his wide-eyed protagonist, she's splattered in blood and looking not long for this world. She's posing for a photo, but it's immediately apparent that she has wandered into an oh-so-vicious realm.

Refn isn't known for being the subtlest of filmmakers, as the manic intensity of Bronson and the detached violence of Only God Forgives both show. He's also a man fond of ensuring that everything audiences see and hear — every colour choice, camera angle, throbbing beat, telling line and moment of silence — is both powerful and entrancing. Combine that with his fondness for dallying with dark tales of human behaviour, and his output tends to be quite polarising. The Neon Demon certainly fits that mould. In fact, it feels like the movie he's been building towards his entire career. Take that as cause for celebration, or a word of warning, depending on how you've felt about his work so far.

It's with a parade of suitably neon-saturated images — and with opening credits emblazoned with his own initials — that Refn recounts Jesse's twisted, violent fairytale excursion to Los Angeles. When she meets makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone), she's plunged deeper into an industry and a city that seems gorgeous and glamorous on the outside, yet remains shallow, false and all-consuming underneath. More experienced, older, surgically enhanced models Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee) don't quite befriend the fresh-faced wannabe, but they do take an envious interest. The competitive edge to their interactions only grows the more that the eager Jesse attracts attention.

Skewering the superficiality of society's obsession with appearances is hardly new or novel. But it's not what Refn is saying in The Neon Demon that makes it so seductive. Rather, it's how he says it. In turning a stars-in-their-eyes story into a moody, psychological horror film, his scathing satirical edge is always evident. Every stylistic choice draws audiences in, then slowly reveals that they should have kept their distance. He's aided by a pulsating score from regular collaborator Cliff Martinez that's both melodic and just the slightest bit unnerving. Likewise the film's images, which could have been ripped from the front page of a fashion mag, yet retain an insidious air. Everything looks pretty, even when the movie's true nature proves otherwise.

To put it simply, Refn wants to both lure people in while threatening all the while to spit them out — and he does so in eye-popping fashion, as does his entire cast. Fanning plays the seeming ingenue with pinpoint precision, and, though there's a stilted air to Aussies Heathcote and Lee, that's clearly by design. Keanu Reeves and Christina Hendricks are both memorable in small, well-used parts as a seedy landlord and a no-nonsense agent, but if there's a supporting player that the film belongs to, it's Malone. In The Neon Demon's most subtle performance, she's caught in the middle of the many extremes swirling around her, and she knows it. Viewers will relate, even if they're too busy either loving or hating Refn's latest big-screen effort to appreciate it. For the record, we're well and truly in the former camp.


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