Not every director starts a scene by yelling, “Action!” Clint Eastwood gently whispers, “When you’re ready,” while others don’t even bother calling it. Sam Fuller used to fire a starter’s pistol into the air. And if IMDB.com is to be believed, Danish writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn got his cast and crew going by screaming, “Violence motherfuckers!” Well, there is more than one way to skin a cat.
Refn’s directorial exclamation is more than an anecdote; it’s his way of life. The director of the acclaimed Bronson and Drive and the derided Only God Forgives lives to push the envelope, and he’s at it once again with The Neon Demon. Building off of cult classics like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Grand Guignol theatre, Refn doesn’t just push the envelope; he dropkicks it into next week and defies his competition to keep pace.
The Neon Demon’s story is sparse: Jesse (Elle Fanning), fresh off the Midwest-USA bus, has landed in Los Angeles and is looking to capitalize on her good looks. Barely 16, Jessie knows what she has, and she works her doe-eyes with precision to turn every male—and a few female—heads in the room. Beautiful? Yes. But even more so, Jesse has that special quality that x-factor model agencies, designers, and photographers desire: The perfect combination of virginal purity and illicit sexuality.
Refn and Neon Demon cinematographer, Natasha Braier, glorify Jesse and her model peers (Jena Malone, Abbey Lee, Bella Heathcote) by combining precise framing with garish and lurid photography. The Neon Demon is a horror movie, and every frame is beautifully composed and photographed with violation, invasion, and sinister leering. One standout scene uses strobe lighting to craft some of the most interesting and gorgeous close-ups in recent memory.
If not for this fastidious approach, The Neon Demon would hardly be worth mentioning. But the cinematography is so seductive, so sensual, that when paired with Cliff Martinez’s pulsating score, The Neon Demon becomes something impulsively alluring even if it leaves one feeling rather icky.
That ickiness comes from Refn’s employment of beauty, both the image and the content of the image. The value of this beauty will be up to each individual viewer, but the squeamish need not apply. Two scenes in particular—one in a morgue and the other at a Malibu beach house—will test your patience and notions of good taste.
For Refn, beauty is akin to a swimming pool: attractive on the surface but ultimately empty and costly. To borrow a line from the British-American novelist Raymond Chandler, “Nothing looks emptier than an empty swimming pool.”
If beauty is emptiness, then so is Los Angeles. As an outsider, Refn considers the city and the people who inhabit it with admiration and repulsion. He isn’t alone. Many cannot help but be drawn to the glowing lights and the shiny surfaces of what L.A. has to offer but are also repulsed by what all that vapidness amounts to. Animals. They eat their own out there. Let’s go watch.
The Neon Demon (2016)
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Written by Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws, Polly Stenham
Story by Nicolas Winding Refn
Produced by Lene Børglum, Sidonie Dumas, Vincent Maraval
Starring: Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves
Broad Green Pictures, Rated R, Running time 117 minutes, Premiered May 20, 2016 at the Cannes Film Festival.