The Neon Demon review: As beautiful as it is ridiculous
Film review: The Neon Demon

Matthew Turner delivers his verdict on horror drama The Neon Demon, the latest film from Nicholas Winding Refn

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A beautiful 16 year old model has a rapid rise to success, but this provokes vampiric jealousy in those around her

Director: Nicholas Winding Refn
Starring: Elle Fanning, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Jena Malone
Genre: Drama / Horror
Country: USA
Release date: July 9, 2016
Cert: 18
Running time: 117 mins

When it premièred at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Nicholas Winding Refn’s stylish drama-horror The Neon Demon reportedly received a more or less equal amount of cheers and boos, as well as a handful of walk-outs.

It turns out that both responses are entirely appropriate, since the film simultaneously showcases everything people love about Refn’s work, and everything people hate about it too.

To that end, your response to the film will likely depend on your tolerance for Refn’s various excesses and his seeming ambivalence towards plot and character, but it’s impossible not to be entranced by his seductive visuals.

Hypnotically stylish

Ostensibly set in present-day Los Angeles, the film stars Elle Fanning as Jesse, a beautiful 16 year-old who arrives in Los Angeles intending to launch her modelling career and is quickly signed by an agent (an under-used Christina Hendricks), who predicts great things for her.

Jesse’s rapid rise to success is aided by her new-found friendship with wordly-wise make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone), but it also provokes monstrous levels of jealousy among cast-aside models Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), who go to increasingly macabre lengths to achieve their revenge.

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Clearly, documentary-like realism is not on the agenda here. Refn presents hypnotically stylised versions of both Los Angeles and the modelling industry, each drenched in mouth-wateringly luscious colours, so that the film unfolds like a surreal, oddly distorted dream.

That dream-like quality is also reflected in the pacing and Cliff Martinez’s sumptuous score, as well a wide range of cinematic influences that includes the work of David Lynch (there are tantalising echoes of Twin Peaks), Alejandro Jodorowsky (Refn’s mentor) and Dario Argento, among others.

Fanning perfectly captures both Jesse’s deer-in-the-headlights naivety and the hint of something darker once success strikes.

Similarly, Heathcote and Lee make a deliciously duplicitous duo and Malone gives an intriguingly enigmatic, multi-layered performance as Ruby, while Keanu Reeves is successfully cast against type as the ultra-sleazy owner of Jesse’s motel.

Underlying dread

Refn packs the film full of weird and wonderful moments, the best of which have an underlying sensation of dread, a lurking terror that never surfaces.

Notable highlights include the reveal of an intruder in Jesse’s motel room and the bizarre, neon-drenched runway show that pulses with suggestions of satanic imagery (if there’s a neon demon anywhere, it’s here).

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It’s also darkly funny, although you occasionally wonder whether laughter was, in fact, the intended response.

On the minus side, there’s an underlying emptiness that, while appropriate to the depiction of the vapid fashion industry, also speaks to Refn’s frustrating lack of interest in narrative or character.

Instead, he indulges in deliberately shocking scenes whose only discernible value is to generate controversy (the much-derided lesbian necrophilia scene serves no dramatic purpose and should have been removed), while also lacking the conviction to follow through with his nastier moments (the film’s most terrifying moment turns out to be a dream).

Worth seeing?

Whether you love it or hate it, this is Refn at the top of his game. As beautiful as it is ridiculous, but unquestionably worth seeing, its future cult status is assured.

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