The Neon Demon is, perhaps, Nicholas Winding Refn's most linear, straight forward story to date. A 16 year old name Jesse (a breakout role for Elle Fanning) from Georgia arrives in Los Angeles to be a professional model. Her natural beauty is so great that she receives everything she wants. Her presumed innocence is her greatest strength, but quickly transforms into a weakness during her meteoric rise to stardom. When the wide-eyed newcomer proves herself smarter and more self-aware than everyone around her, she becomes a threat. That doesn't mean that The Neon Demon makes a lot of sense; none of his films do. This is just an easier story to follow because of the well-tread linear arc to the inevitable conclusion.
Nicholas Winding Refn has made great strides in his style and mastery of film since his breakout hit Drive. His voice is an intentional series of contradictions. His stories are dark, twisted fairy tales of violence and sexual fantasy told in supersaturated shades of magenta and cyan. He's playing with noir in the literal shades of red/blue 3D glasses, but forcing the eye to view his stacked frames as flat cartoons of human suffering. His plots are simple, but his exploration of humanity and the depths people sink to survive in big cities is dense, complex, and utterly rewarding to parse through on multiple viewings.
The Neon Demon plays in unpredictable ways with our expectations of the superficiality of the modeling industry. This 16 year old, instructed to lie and say she is 19 by her agent (a wasted Christina Hendricks--there's no reason the agent couldn't have appeared in more than one scene, especially one realized in such a remarkable way with so little screentime), is wanted for nothing more than her physical beauty. She is young, she is fit, she is beautiful--these are her only sources of worth. Her beauty is so pure, so precious, in the artificiality of Hollywood that everyone who sees her wants her.
Jesse is a fascinating character. In Elle Fanning's capable hands, she is everything you want her to be and everything you fear. At first, you pity the sweet orphaned child making a go of it in Los Angeles. Her introduction is as a corpse, dripping blood and staring blankly at the camera on a closed set. Despite the poor quality of the photos, she is instantly signed because of her perceived naiveté in appearance as contrasted by the Lolita, mythic fantasy of her modeling capabilities.
Jesse tricks you in every scene without losing your sympathy. She is the victim and the mechanism of the fashion industry. You think people want to take advantage of her because they do; you don't think that she is knowingly playing into their whims. She is perfectly humble and unaware until she has the opportunity to destroy anyone standing in her way with a blunt statement of truth.
Winding Refn still struggles with crafting believable supporting female characters if sex is on the table. Jena Malone is incredible as makeup artist Ruby. She instantly falls for Jesse and offers to be her protector in the industry. She is also a stock predatory lesbian character, sucking her lip and clearly going after Jesse every chance she gets. Her repressed desires manifest in the strangest sequence to ever appear in one of Nicholas Winding Refn's films--straight up necrophilia.
Other supporting characters have more material to work with, but don't particularly rise above symbols of the fashion industry. Gigi (Bella Heathcote) is the reigning queen of the fashion industry and Sarah (Abbey Lee) is the fading star. Heathcote and Lee do solid work when the material is there, but they rarely have the chance to do more than serve as commentary on the toxicity of fashion.
The Neon Demon has many voices, but the hardest turn to reconcile is the third act. Suddenly, the film takes on a strange mix of myth and slasher as the models turn on each other in a shocking action sequence. There are many myths and stories spurred by a young woman too beautiful for this world and The Neon Demon borrows from all of them in violence so graphic it shifts to absurdity. Then the film continues on into far more desperate and disturbing territory designed to show how numb the industry is to the discarded girls who just aren't wanted for work anymore.
I have to inject myself here to be clear on my opinions. I quite like The Neon Demon in the same way I found myself drawn to Only God Forgives. They are flawed and fascinating experiments in genre, tone, and expectations. They are fantasy thrillers with slasher and mythological elements driven by such a unique understanding of color and artistic framing that you don't want to look away. The original scores become their own character in the stories, and the actors often take the backseat (usually literally, but not this time) to modern video art as a cipher for cinematic thesis.
If nothing else, The Neon Demon is another fascinating film from Nicholas Winding Refn; not amazing, not terrible, just something beyond the capabilities of the thumbs up/thumbs down mindset that still defines modern critical perception.
The Neon Demon is available to stream on Amazon Prime.