Los Angeles, photoshoots, and necrophilia – The Neon Demon has it all.
Nicolas Winding Refn has some gems in his career already, with Bronson (2008) and Drive (2011) in particular from the last decade standing out, and now this psychological horror stands beside the greats in his filmography thanks to some seductive production choices.
The plot, on the other hand, is nothing new.
Jesse is young (too young), has just arrived in LA, and is keen to do some photoshoots. Those with the power to pull some strings fawn over her, while other women are increasingly frustrated by her seemingly effortless success.
It is nothing we have not seen before, as Jesse is consumed by the industry and the city while those surrounding her move into place to pull the rug out from under her at the first opportunity.
Joy or malevolence?
Elle Fanning is Jesse and she is one hell of a protagonist. She is young, and so even if you believe Jesse knows what she is doing, that she is in control of the situation, you cannot help but feel protective of her as Abbey Lee’s Sarah and Bella Heathcote’s Gigi tower over her in heels, thirsty for blood.
Fanning is so subtle that the tiniest smirk could be relief and joy or malevolence and scheming (or all of the above) – the details in her facial expressions are comparable to Saoirse Ronan’s similarly amazing performance in Brooklyn.
Jena Malone’s Ruby never gives much away, but is certainly keen to extend a hand and immerse Jesse in this new world, taking her to a party right after she arrives in the city; a party involving performance art, strobe lights, and a pounding soundtrack by Cliff Martinez, also of Drive fame.
Crystal sharp looks
Lights and sound are what set The Neon Demon apart. Where the plot may feel familiar, the presentation never does, feeling more akin to art film Under the Skin (2014) than anything else.
Monotonous and empty backgrounds are contrasted with hyper-saturised figures and lights front and centre. The bright neon glow of the city is effective at distracting from just how sparse this iteration of Los Angeles is – for a booming metropolis and a cutthroat industry, there are not a lot of people in this film.
It looks modern. Everything is crystal sharp, and it is regrettable it will likely never see an IMAX release.
A very now appearance requires an equally current soundtrack, and Martinez’s electronic score ranges from floor-filling beats to mysterious reverb, a subtle reminder that something more sinister than usual is lurking below the surface.
At two hours long and with such a simple plot, it will really test the patience of those not prepared to feel more than think. At times it is incredibly sparse with little to nothing happening.
There are snippets that could be for a music video, or an Instagram post, or a Tumblr reblog. It is so stylish that refusing to get sucked into its world could leave you staring at an empty canvas. It would be a beautiful canvas, but is it actually saying anything?
The Neon Demon sticks
Much like last year’s Macbeth, The Neon Demon will stick with you because of how it looks and feels, and not what it actually says. It is one thing to say Jesse has a creepy encounter with a photographer, but another altogether to see the way he puts his face so close to her shoulder blade before covering her in gold paint with his hands.
The detail, the art, the rewards are in how The Neon Demon feels. If you let it consume you, it is a hell of a ride.