by Kevin Muller
The simplistic story of a young girl finding fame, fortune, and independence, while losing her innocence, is as old as time itself. Even before movies visualized it, the story was told as a cautionary tale for the young. How do you sell it in a new way that hasn’t been done to death? Well, Nicolas Winding Refn has done it with his new movie “The Neon Demon” and it is one hell of a mind trip.
Refn, has become one of Hollywood’s most interesting directors. Eight years ago him and Tom Hardy took us through the mind of one of Britain’s most dangerous criminals in “Bronson” and then in 2011 gave us an existential experience with Ryan Gosling in “Drive.” Since the latter film, his visual method of storytelling has become his trademark. In “Drive” there were moments of silence, accompanied with music, that went on for minutes that conveyed more than most overlong monologues do. He utilizes the same technique here once again. This is a movie that will not win you over if you don’t like his style. It is a breath of fresh air though that some directors aren’t all dedicated to the same paint of numbers formula. His movies feel like dreams, but in the case of this particular one, it is more like a nightmare.
Since arriving in Hollywood, Jess, played by Elle Fanning, has knocked everyone out with her beauty. She has come out to make her dreams of becoming a model a reality. In her own words, she sadly describes how she isn’t good at anything but being good looking. It is a sad moment that Fanning does sell since you can see her future mapped out: success, a peak, then a decline of drugs, sex, alcohol, or all three. Anyway, she is incredibly sweet and good -natured. Oh, she is also two years underage of being an adult. It is a fact that the modeling agencies tell her to hide by saying she is 19, since 18 is too common of an answer. All this success starts to worry two hot-shot models Gigi and Sarah, played by Bella Heathcote and Abby Lee. As with a predator with its prey, they sniff her out by asking her questions about who she is while basically getting inside her head. Her only solace is her makeup girl Ruby, who seems to have serious jones for her. Jena Malone digs into her dark side so well to give Ruby a vibe that you really can’t figure out. As the movie progresses, Jesse starts to become more dead inside and realize that both the modeling world, and the real one, is a dark place where it is really a dog eat dog world.
As stated, none of this, story wise, is anything new. The real treat comes from the both the music and cinematography. Cliff Martinez gives us a score that is full of electronic melodies that heighten the darkness that envelops both the world and young Jess’s life. The real star here is Natasha Braier who both paints a unique looking L.A. and communicates many of the themes, metaphors, and unspoken feelings of the characters with the camera. While many may not buy into this sinister look at the ugliness of L.A. and the modeling business, you can’t deny that it looks beautiful. The neon colors will give your eyes a visual feast throughout this entire movie. As said, Refn has a habit of having many dialogue free scenes where the emotions of the characters are communicated through the sights of what is going on in them. A vital scene where Jesse loses her innocence combines the best of both Martinez and Braier abilities to help Refn sell the importance of it without Fanning saying a word.
This isn’t to say that Fanning isn’t good, because she actually does a really good job at selling the hopelessness of being devoured by the industry she so badly wants to break into. As with Jess, Fanning was 16 when this was shot. Refn definitely uses her youthfulness to push his cautionary tale. Fanning’s expressiveness does change from the time where she is innocent to the time where she has lost her soul. Both Bella Heathcote and Abby Lee are the basic jealous and soul less model bitches. One, Lee, is the alpha who is the polar opposite of the insecure and plastic one, who Heathcote plays. The two characters definitely are the embodiment of the saying, “hell hath no fury like a woman’s scorn.” The real stand out here though is Jena Malone. The actress has been in the game since her pre-teens and definitely shows she knows how to make a character stand out. Is she a friend or a foe? The movie’s biggest shocking moment belongs to her. She is obsessed with young Jess and will do anything to protect her. Malone gives the character a mysterious quality.
Refn intended this to be a horror movie set in the modeling industry. As with the story being as old as time, many of the directing choices have been done before. The director also has a habit of going too far off the deep end. Many scenes just to get too weird and out there to have any kind of impact. His strong point is the control of the imagery and the performances he gets out of his actresses. During an interview, he said that he feels a strong connection to women and feel they have the true power in this world. These women are as dark and disturbed as any horror villain that is human or not. Of course, this movie and its characters are a heightened reality of females but it understands that darkness does exist in all of us, especially those in such a soul crushing and competitive industry such as modeling.
“The Neon Demon” has a lot in common with a Grimm fairy tale. It presents us with a pure character being seduced by a beautiful world, meeting charismatic characters, being a part of beautiful imagery, and suffering the unfortunate consequences of playing in sin. Though it does fly off the rails a bit, and isn’t for everyone, it is a breath of fresh air in the cinematic world of super heroes and lazy filmmaking.