The Neon Demon might be the most batshit insane film of 2016
When Nicolas Winding Refn followed up his beloved cult thriller Drive with the pretentious, unpleasant Only God Forgives, the backlash was intense. The most divisive film in years, some championed the film as brave and brilliant (Peter Bradshaw and Richard Roeper were among those who gave it positive reviews), whilst many actively despised every minute of it (Cannes audiences booed, whilst one online blogger found it incredibly off-putting). Many people, myself included, were utterly baffled: “How could Refn make a film that ignored absolutely everything people loved about Drive?”
The only people not surprised by Only God Forgives’ ponderously slow pace, stomach-churning violence, and intense style were long-time NWR fans who have seen all this before. Nicolas Winding Refn isn’t interested in plot or characters or positive reactions; Drive, and to a lesser extent Bronson and the Pusher trilogy, are the anomalies in his career. Only God Forgives was much more NWR’s style, and that’s clear to see with his new film, The Neon Demon. Whilst The Neon Demon is a far more interesting film than its predecessor, it’s also far weirder, and possibly the most batshit insane film of 2016.
After a gorgeous title sequence (looking like a perfume ad, complete with NWR logo), The Neon Demon introduces us to Jesse (Elle Fanning), a sixteen-year-old model in the middle of a fake blood-covered photoshoot. New to LA, Jesse becomes the hot new name around town; signed to the top agency (represented by a cameoing Christina Hendricks), adored by a lonely make-up artist (Jena Malone), and envied by her older, less successful fellow models (Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote). The first half of The Neon Demon doesn’t cover much more story than this. Jesse prowls around the LA modelling scene, taking part in disturbingly voyeuristic photo shoots (one photographer strips her down and covers her in gold paint) or hanging out in a sleazy motel watched over by creepy Keanu Reeves (giving the scariest performance of his career).
Though the film is closer in style and tone to Only God Forgives than Drive (despite sharing Drive’s LA setting), The Neon Demon is far more accessible and intriguing. Where Only God Forgives’ pace and style felt tediously pretentious, I found myself hypnotised by Elle Fanning’s ambiguous performance, Cliff Martinez’s superlative score, and the astonishingly beautiful visuals. The first half could have lasted three hours, and I would have enjoyed every moment; it’s probably the best experience I’ve had in a cinema all year.
And then the film freaks out.
Literally, as Jesse hallucinates on the runway in an extraordinarily strange scene, full of triangular symbolism, mirrors, and eighties synths. Soon, The Neon Demon changes into a sinister, baffling, unpredictable mess, crossing boundaries and making you feel sick in that thrilling way only Nicolas Winding Refn is capable of. First, we are subjected to a disturbing dream sequence involving Keanu Reeves and a knife, followed by a genuinely troubling sequence of sexual abuse that shows the first signs of The Neon Demon turning as unrepentantly horrible as NWR’s previous films.
This is just a warm up.
To spoil the final act of the film would be to ruin some of the most jaw-dropping, surprising, upsetting images you’ll ever see. Nicolas Winding Refn is a man who loves controversy, and The Neon Demon is destined to be loved and despised in equal measures. Personally, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed in the director as he let his worst instincts take over, treating us to a hideous sex scene, endless amounts of gore, and an inexplicable-but-unforgettable freak reminiscent of 1981’s Possession. None of these sequences are boring, but they’re so repulsive and clearly designed to shock that, as Sia blasted out over the credit sequence, I couldn’t help but feel a little unsatisfied. A sexy, eerie masterpiece of style and intrigue had turned into a self-indulgent B-movie.
I’m a little lost for words after seeing The Neon Demon. While I enjoyed it, and think it’s one of the best films of the year, I feel totally ill-equipped to review it. Partly because there are many elements I don’t understand or can’t comprehend (especially Reeves’ character, and most of the final 30 minutes), and partly because it’s unlike anything else out there.
There are plenty of great things to say about The Neon Demon, however. Elle Fanning comes of age in a stunningly mature performance, whilst the rest of the cast are excellent, despite deliberately playing caricatures. Cliff Martinez’ score is incredible and the visuals are the most stunning of Refn’s career so far.
The Neon Demon appalled and delighted me in equal measure. It’s frustrating and difficult, yet I can’t wait to see it again. Go and see this film, even though you’ll probably hate it.
By Harry J. Ford
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