Nicolas Winding Refn has been something of an enigma since he burst onto the scene with his violent 1996 Danish crime thriller Pusher. Since then, his films have only gotten stranger and more violent, which is saying something if you seen his films Drive or Valhala Rising. Although the films are weird, they’ve also gotten better. His latest film The Neon Demon is no exception to the rule. It’s nothing short of a visual masterpiece, while also showcasing the vapid and cutthroat world of modeling.
I would not describe Refn as a mainstream filmmaker, however he does have some broad mainstream appeal. As his career continues to flourish, his name continues to attract some of Hollywood’s biggest and brightest stars. Most notably would be names like Ryan Gosling (Drive/ Only God Forgives), Tom Hardy (Bronson), Mads Mikkelsen (Pusher/Valhalla Rising), and most recently Elle Fanning (The Neon Demon). In fact, I credit this director with bringing Mads Mikkelsen into the forefront; A man who has gone on to embody so many great roles with just his sinister presence.
If you’ve seen any of the above-mentioned films, then you know what I mean by “strange & violent”. If you haven’t seen them, it’s not essential, but it helps to give you perspective. The Neon Demon starts off by showing Jesse (Fanning) as a corpse bleeding out on the floor of a barely furnished apartment. At first, we aren’t sure of what we’re seeing until it is revealed that she is posing for photos. This is her first step before a trip to the city of angels, on her way to modeling stardom. It’s a dark opening and some potential foreshadowing of things to come. The film is heavy on symbolism, so be ready to enjoy the subtleties or roll your eyes at the pretentiousness.
Jesse checks into an “extended stay” hotel on the outskirts of town, run by a sleazy owner, surprisingly played by Keanu Reeves. Upon her first meeting with a modeling agency it’s clear that she has “it”. She so intrigues the agency executive that she is advised to lie about her age, and to watch out for the competition. She is also put in front of one of the hottest and most eccentric photographers in the business. At this first photo shoot, she is greeted by the attractive yet (not model quality) make up artist named Ruby (Jena Malone.). Ruby immediately takes a liking to Jesse, and recognizes her star quality. Ruby decides to take the young ingénue under her wing…or does she?
Jesse is the standout in every room, and Ruby introduces her to all the right people. It takes no time at all for her to begin working with all the top artists and photographers in the business. At this point Jesse is invited to move into a large house with Ruby and two other models. From here on out, nothing is as it seems and a real sense of dread begins to brew in the viewer. Although the horror territory isn’t really spelled out until the final act, it’s clear that something sinister is in store. The question is really, who or what will rear it’s ugly head in this world overflowing with beauty.
Jesse is impossibly naïve, and often appears soulless and hollow. She barely speaks, and if she does, it’s from a shell of a human being. I understood this to be intentional, perhaps showing the hollowness of the industry, and often the people involved in it. She’s painfully uninteresting and unaware of her surroundings. This is all to clear by her willingness to accept the kindness of strangers without really understanding the consequences or ulterior motives behind them. Jesse puts herself in some cringe-worthy scenarios. She acts like a puppet until she starts to recognize how powerful her success can make her in this world.
The film shows the young starlet rising to the top almost effortlessly. It also shows the lengths that others will go to in order to cling to fading beauty. For some of these women, beauty is everything and there is nothing off limits to give them that competitive edge. The fake smiles, and plastic veneers are on full display with the darkest of intentions underneath. The film plays up the dread and jealousy of others until diving head first into the horrific third act. Be patient, it’s worth the wait.
This film has been challenging for horror audiences around the world. I think that upon the conclusion of the film, it is undoubtedly a horror film, even if it’s almost a tongue-in-cheek metaphor for the entire modeling industry. It’s a slow burn for sure, but I was very heavily reminded of the 2014 horror masterpiece Starry Eyes or some of the later films of Lars Von Trier. There’s a definite European sensibility, even if the subject matter is very American or “LA” as it were. The final scene of the film will have the true horror fans smiling, and personally I thought it made up for any (percieved) down time during the film.
Nicolas Winding Refn is a talent to keep an eye out for, if you don’t already know who he is. He’s an arthouse director with a love of horror and extreme cinema. We need more people like this in the horror community to keep the genre moving forward. He’s a darling for critics, which means his film can attract financing and the biggest stars, while still staying true to his vision. He’s got a number of projects in the works and as of this writing, it’s rumored he’s kicking around the idea of remaking Maniac Cop. All this writer can say is YES and YES!! Let’s hope for once the Hollywood machine doesn’t destroy the dream project for this Danish Wunderkind, as it has a tendency to do. If you don’t share my excitement for this remake allow me to quote the original Maniac Cop…You have the right to remain silent…Forever!