As striking opening shots go, this takes some beating: a model lies draped across a chez lounge, blood from a neck wound coating her body and forming a wide pool on the floor around her. It’s a grim image, and as the camera pans back and the scene’s macabre calm is disrupted by the intermittently blinding light of a flashbulb, it becomes apparent that what we’re watching here isn’t the bloody aftermath of a murder, but a photoshoot. In a film where horror and beauty come to coexist as virtually one and the same, it’s a fitting introduction, and in The Neon Demon, director Nicolas Winding Refn is on typically polarising form.
On the Winding Refn Accessibility Scale, this probably exists somewhere between the comparatively mainstream leanings of Drive and the more alienating arthouse inclinations of Only God Forgives. Featuring a largely female-dominated cast, he’s also worked with female screenwriters for the first time in his career – a wise decision, given his previous identifiable difficulty with writing roles for women. However, The Neon Demon is ironically the film of his that calls the least for in-depth characterisation (although there’s no denying that Ryan Gosling’s nameless Driver in Drive benefits hugely from an air of mystery, an astute piece of creative license from the source material, which is fatally mired in unnecessary backstory.).
From the moment that aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning) touches down in Los Angeles, the characters she meets are imbued with a knowing superficiality. Amongst other things, the vacuousness of the fashion industry is in Refn’s crosshairs here, and the one-dimensional nature of some of the main players is all the better to hit that target with. Indeed, the most human character here is makeup artist Ruby (Donnie Darko and The Hunger Games’ Jena Malone), who is portrayed, at least initially, as Jesse’s life raft in what feels like an ocean of passive aggression and veiled hostility from her peers.
There’s a hypnotic quality to The Neon Demon that Refn aspired to but didn’t make quite such a success of in Only God Forgives. His usual gift for a stunningly framed shot persists here, and Natasha Braier’s cinematography is awards-worthy. Every location – be it Jesse’s dilapidated motel, a sweeping LA skyline or the palatial halls of Ruby’s home – is used to its full potential, and a truly remarkable shot of Fanning delivering a cold, self-realising monologue from the end of a diving board in an empty swimming pool is the one that lingers longest in the memory. This, combined with Cliff Martinez’s immaculately synth-drenched score, sees to it that the spell of Demon‘s dramatic and narrative slow-burn is never broken.
As the film reaches its climax, the surrealism and absurdity hit new highs, the blood flows more freely, and The Neon Demon follows its themes of rivalry, self-image and resentment to their logical, wrenching conclusion. However, there’s a staggering sting in the tail in the film’s breathlessly Grand Guignol finale, and while its histrionics might seem silly in lesser hands, here it feels both earned and strangely apt. Its self-conscious vapidity, deep-seated unpleasantness and carefully-manicured posturing might drive some running for the hills, but in The Neon Demon, Refn has without question produced a film that could well be responsible for some of 2016’s liveliest cinematic discussion.