THE NEON DEMON [2016]

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Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

Written by Nicolas Winding Refn (story), Mary Laws (screenplay), Polly Stenham (screenplay)

Starring: Elle Fanning, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Karl Glusman, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Jena Malone


Expect the unexpected. This describes so many aspects of The Neon Demon, Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest (disaster?)piece.

It was always going to be interesting. Personally, I belong in what seems to be the rare group who preferred Only God Forgives over Drive. Now, Drive is great, don’t get me wrong, but the colours, the images of Only God Forgives… they are hard to peel your eyes away from. It feels like a form of hypnosis, much like when I watch 2001. Here though we have a film that is perhaps a happy medium between the two. This is still filled with changing, hypnotic neon colours and plenty of symbolism, but unlike Only God Forgives, the narrative is much less of a task to follow.

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Elle Fanning is perfectly cast as the innocent newcomer to the glamorous world of modelling, with her baby face, button nose and shy demeanour. The first shot we see of her is immediately engaging – Elle is lying on a couch, and there is blood everywhere. Is this how it begins?! It sets the tone for the movie, as almost everything that happens is beyond unpredictable.

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Apparently Refn wanted Fanning, and only her, and as soon as we see her amongst the other models we instantly see why. While it seems she is befriended by make-up artist Roberta at her first shoot, the seedy underworld of modelling is quickly pressed onto Elle as she is taken to a party by Roberta, where she meets two other, established models. One of these other models casually asks, after a very frank conversation about plastic surgery, “who are you fucking? Isn’t that what we are all thinking? This girl is beautiful, she is new in town and is turning heads. That’s what we want to know, right? Who is she fucking, and will she climb the ladder higher than me?”

That scene sets the tone, as the hotel where Elle is staying is just as trashy as the underworld of modelling, with owner Keanu Reeves nailing the creepy uncle angle, who at one point lets Elle’s photographer boyfriend know that there is a room that he should check out.

“Some reeeal Lolita shit,” is what he says. We can only imagine what could be in that room, Refn again allowing our imagination to fill in the gaps. I must emphasise that Reeves is great here – it seems John Wick has revived his career.

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The film certainly doesn’t take long to establish the world we’re diving into, and it is soon established that Elle Fanning is the prey in this film, as she arrives to her motel after a shoot only to find a panther (or jaguar?) in her room. The owner of the hotel tells her she that is paying the bills for the mess caused, and his disturbing attitude surely sees Elle as fresh meat himself.

Despite these disturbing occurrences, Elle lands a gig with a major agency, and it is time to pose for a real photographer. Again it feels as if she is the prey as the photographer asks her to strip down to nothing at all to achieve what he wants. Suddenly the lights go out, the screen goes black, as Refn dares us to guess, teases us with what could possibly happen next. It’s brilliant and he uses this device several times throughout the film.

Upon making it into a major modelling show, Elle undertakes a transformation of sorts. As we see her confidence rise (in a very visually confronting and symbolic way), it is clear that her success has changed her. Her boyfriend remarks that he doesn’t recognise her, and with a full face of make-up and revealing clothing, his reaction is far from surprising.

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Unsurprisingly, the film’s tone darkens further as the movie progresses, with an extremely confronting final act, including the climax, and that ending.

There are so many ways to look at this I could write an essay about it, as the film is filled with symbolism and different ways to dissect the film. All the other women in the film apart from Elle look appropriately soulless, adding more to the tense, creepy atmosphere. In fact, the men in the film possess more of a soul, even if it is decrepit and dirty.

Refn’s hiring of two female playwrights was perfect, as he was intent on making this film from a female perspective – the last thing he wanted was a male’s perception of the industry. This decision, along with casting Elle Fanning, is perfect as the two writers add a definite feminine perspective to the film, which contrasts nicely against the machismo world of his last few flicks.

Like one of those dice from RPG board-games, this film has so many sides it can almost be overwhelming. And I assume it is for some people – Refn rarely makes films for everyone. But having watched it three times now, I’ve formed my own theories and enjoy talking about it with others who have their own interpretations.

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It is that sort of movie, one person could see it as a simple horror/thriller about a young model in the industry, while another person might see supernaturalsix beer(1) and/or spiritual themes within. This incredible variety is paired with incredible visuals and colours (thanks to another female, DOP Natasha Braier) and a constant, throbbing score by Cliff Martinez. It all culminates into a film that is unlike any other. Of course there are similarities to Refn’s earlier films, but this is his best and most diverse work yet. I can’t wait for the next one, as this is one of those flicks that I simply cannot stop thinking about, weeks after having seen it.

This one is worth a full sixer, and it will take a lot to take this from the #1 spot for my favourite film of the year.

6/6