Director Nicolas Winding Refn has constructed a hyper-stylized world for “The Neon Demon” to lavishly reside in. It’s a space where aesthetics are sacred and absolute — where visual pleasure is a path to divinity. Where every frame is composed to indulge and honor that vision without fail, finding purpose in hues of aquamarine and pastel pinks.
Refn loves his contrasts, both visual and thematic. It’s no surprise that “The Neon Demon” takes place in the City of Angels, where the radiant Jesse — a fresh arrival from Georgia — has come to in search of opportunity in modeling. However, she’s fully aware of the odds stacked against her: She owns her complete lack of talent in a manner so nonchalant it’s bordering on the robotic. Jesse’s personal desire to capitalize on her beauty, without a lick of desperation or self-pity, completely drives her professional ambition.
After being signed to a premier modeling agency, Jesse finds a friend in Ruby (Jena Malone) — a makeup artist who introduces her to two 20-year-old veterans of premier Los Angeles modeling. They don’t say much when lounging around in the bathroom (or at any point), avoiding phony diatribes and letting the tactile tensions between them rise to the contoured surface. Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcoate) both scrutinize Jesse with optical pat-downs to assess her as a threat. There’s no pretense of friendship between the two women and Jesse. Other models are duly right to be afraid — sharper cheekbones can cause much more damage than any knife can.
Aging also lends to a sense of worry among models — an inevitability lingering around the constant decay of the body. Jesse’s natural beauty is cause for a few brief moments of consternation among Gigi and Sarah. They’ve resorted to using plastic surgery and fillers — artificial stopgaps that Jesse’s beyond — to advance their standing in an industry of artifice, only to be showed up by that rogue Southern belle. A diamond in a sea of glass. The film might have descended into an overdone moralizing tale of condemning jealousy, but upends that by mocking such sentiments in quick quips and focusing on more macabre elements in the delirious second half.
“The Neon Demon” also stands apart from so much cinematic fare in that it’s a female-dominated space. Blonde white women make up 90 percent of the cast, an honest reflection on the fashion world’s demographics, most blatantly pointed out in a veritable audition of the clones at runway tryouts. One of the few men to make a notable presence in the film, Keanu Reeves, makes an impression in the few scenes he has as psychopathic predator and motel-manager Hank.
The efforts of Refn and cinematographer Natasha Braier make for the most stunning sequences to be captured on film this year. Film’s a visual medium and “The Neon Demon” takes full advantage of that fact by presenting us with scenes that breach their structure and become seances. A pulsing electronic score by Cliff Martinez perfectly underlays an early scene’s sole strobing red light in an otherwise pitch-black room, setting the ethereal tone for a contortionist’s performance that borders on the surreal. This bourgeois ritual both marks the moment when she’s initiated into the culture and sets the mood for what’s to come.
Although the film is introduced as a palatable thriller, it loosens the shackles of genre by freewheeling between melodrama and horror with a decidedly grotesque sense of humor. Combining all that and a complete lack of sentimentality, “The Neon Demon” is bound to push people away. Creatively uncompromised and unforgiving, it’s an indulgent realization of the director’s innermost desires.
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Keanu Reeves, Christina Hendricks, Bella Heathcote
Release Date: June 24, 2016